Workers Vanguard No. 1043
4 April 2014
Venezuela: U.S. Imperialism Fuels Right-Wing Protests
Break with Chavismo! For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
For almost eight weeks, students and middle-class demonstrators demanding the salida (exit) of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro have set up barricades in affluent neighborhoods in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities. While deriding the country’s oppressed masses and raving against purported Cuban infiltration of the government, protesters have also attempted to tap very real popular grievances—shortages of necessities like cooking oil, flour and toilet paper, rising inflation and high crime rates. The government has called out the National Guard against protesters, but by several reports the protesters themselves are responsible for many of the almost 40 deaths. There have also been rumors of a coup attempt, leading to the arrest of three air force generals on March 24.
The U.S. imperialists, who back the right-wing opposition, and their media mouthpieces have raised a great hue and cry over Venezuelan government repression. On March 4, the House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the Maduro government by a vote of 393-1. Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry threatened sanctions against Venezuela and denounced Maduro for waging a “terror campaign against his own people.” (Actually, the U.S. secretary of state is the real expert in waging terror campaigns against civilian populations.) Florida gusano Congressmen are foaming at the mouth over the possibility of ousting Maduro and stopping the 100,000 barrels of oil that Venezuela ships to Cuba daily, partly in exchange for the services of 30,000 medics and other Cuban personnel.
Leading figures in the protest include neoliberal opposition politicians Maria Corina Machado, who was recently stripped of her parliamentary immunity, and the now imprisoned Leopoldo López. Machado, a congresswoman from a wealthy district who is known as the “Venezuelan Iron Lady” for her conservative views, was honored at the White House in 2005 by George W. Bush for her attempts to undermine the regime of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. The group she cofounded, Súmate, has taken money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a notorious CIA front. López, a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government, has the blessing of Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank funded by ExxonMobil, Chevron and the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), which is another CIA conduit. A member of Venezuela’s oligarchy, he is a wealthy descendent of the 19th-century Latin American nationalist Simón Bolívar.
Since Chávez was first elected in 1998, the U.S. imperialists have sought to install someone more to their liking in Caracas. Hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. funds have been poured into attempts to undermine the Venezuelan government through U.S. AID’s “humanitarian” programs and NED grants to train political activists and provide “democracy assistance.” Toppling the regime was the goal of the failed U.S.-backed coup in April 2002, the capitalist lockouts designed to cripple the oil industry in the winter of 2002-03 and the campaign to recall Chávez in 2004. After Maduro was elected president by a narrow margin last April, Washington’s local agents claimed fraud and attempted to reverse the results in favor of their candidate.
Many of Venezuela’s capitalists made their profits as front men for imperialist interests. Gustavo Cisneros is one. The Cisneros family amassed immense wealth as the Venezuelan distributors of Pepsi, later branching into media and other industries. Cisneros’s backing of the 2002 failed coup against Chávez earned his TV station, along with three others, the nickname the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
In deeply polarized Venezuelan society, poor and working people overwhelmingly remain tied to chavismo, the left-wing nationalist populism associated with strongman Chávez and adopted by Maduro, who came to prominence on Chávez’s coattails. Chávez consolidated popular support by denouncing U.S. imperialism’s military interventions around the world and bucking its policies in Latin America. He used the wealth generated by selling oil to fund social welfare programs like food subsidies, improving pensions and health care (the latter with Cuban assistance).
In Chávez’s first 12 years in office, the population’s caloric intake increased 50 percent and the poverty rate fell from over 50 percent to less than 30 percent. He made it harder to fire workers, mandated pensions for domestic workers and repeatedly raised the minimum wage. Unlike the traditional political elite who flaunt their European roots while oozing contempt for the poor, Chávez boasted of his zambo (mixed African and indigenous) heritage. When Maduro—Chávez’s vice president and hand-picked successor—was narrowly elected president after Chávez’s death a year ago, he promised to continue the “Bolivarian Revolution” begun by Chávez in 1999.
Though in the crosshairs of U.S. imperialism and hated by the layer of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie most closely tied to the imperialists, Maduro, like Chávez before him, heads a capitalist government. Chávez himself repeatedly emphasized that his regime did not pose a risk to private property. While Marxists support the establishment of social welfare programs for the poor and defend nationalizations in dependent countries, these measures do not in any way alter the capitalist character of a society, no matter the amount of “socialist” packaging that’s given to them.
In fact, chavista nationalist populism helps deflect social struggle and ideologically binds the impoverished masses and the working class to capitalist rule. The nationalizations of land and private companies—carried out in large part through government buyouts—represent a means by which countries under imperialist domination can achieve a degree of economic independence. But far from placing the productive wealth of society in the hands of working people, these nationalizations have helped Chávez’s cronies in the so-called boliburguesía (Bolivarian bourgeoisie) line their pockets.
U.S. policy in Latin America has left a centuries-long bloody trail of military interventions, American-installed dictators and death squads. It is in the interests of working people in the U.S., as well as in Venezuela, to oppose a U.S.-backed coup or other imperialist intervention in the country. At the same time, political support to chavismo and the Maduro regime only subordinates the Venezuelan working class to its capitalist exploiters. For this reason, during the 2004 referendum to recall Chávez, we argued for abstention rather than a no vote. As we wrote in “U.S. Imperialism’s Referendum Ploy Fails—Populist Capitalist Ruler Chávez Prevails” (WV No. 831, 3 September 2004):
“The immediate perspective that is urgently posed is not only to oppose U.S. imperialist incursions into Venezuela and elsewhere, but to fight to shatter the support of the workers movement to either Chávez or the opposition, and to forge a revolutionary internationalist workers party to lead the working class to power. This requires an intransigent fight against nationalism in Venezuela, which obscures class divisions in the country. Only the victorious struggle for working-class rule, i.e., socialist revolution throughout the Americas, will ensure land to the landless and enable the oil workers and other proletarians to enjoy the wealth created by their labor.”
Nationalist Populism: Dead End for Working People
Like Lázaro Cárdenas who ruled Mexico in the 1930s or Argentina’s Juan Perón in the 1940s and ’50s, Chávez, a former colonel who had attempted an unsuccessful military coup in 1992, was what Marxists call a bonapartist ruler. The term applies to a strongman, typically a (former) military leader like the original Napoleon Bonaparte, heading a regime that in a period of crisis elevates itself to a position of “leader of the nation.” As revolutionary Marxist Leon Trotsky explained when writing about the Cárdenas regime which expropriated the petroleum and energy industries:
“In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by maneuvering with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom toward the foreign capitalists.”
—“Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management” (1939)
Populist reform and neoliberal austerity are two faces of capitalist class rule in dependent countries, that is, alternate policy prescriptions available to the national bourgeoisie, as demonstrated in Venezuela itself. In 1976, President Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalized the oil industry with compensation. Buoyed by increasing oil prices, he invested heavily in social programs, expanding government employment and improving education and health care. But when Pérez was elected president again in 1989, the oil market had crashed, so he implemented massive austerity at the behest of the International Monetary Fund.
Chávez’s principal concern upon coming to power in 1998 was to solve the problem of the country’s faltering oil profits, the lifeblood of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. He moved immediately to discipline the oil workers union and to otherwise increase the efficiency of the state-owned oil industry, while pressing the OPEC oil cartel to jack up prices. It was for such efforts, and in the interest of political stability, that Chávez was initially supported by much of the ruling class. This included not least his former comrades in the military high command, who were instrumental in restoring him to power after the short-lived 2002 coup.
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. With declining productivity dragging down its economy, Venezuela has managed to keep afloat in no small part due to billions of dollars in loans from the Chinese deformed workers state in exchange for oil.
Most of the Venezuelan capitalist class enriched itself by siphoning off the oil wealth of the country. Chávez’s use of this revenue for social reforms angered elements of the bourgeoisie who had long seen this money as their personal slush fund. When Chávez implemented price and currency controls and nationalizations, the divide deepened. Some one million wealthy and middle-class Venezuelans have left the country from the time Chávez came to power. Many have sent their money abroad—including to Miami, the snake pit of anti-Communist Cuban exiles. In response, the government instituted more price and currency controls, which made it more difficult for private companies to get capital, hardening opposition to the government. As a result, many capitalist manufacturers, such as in the auto industry, have closed up shop, increasing Venezuela’s dependency on imported goods.
To boost profits, many private stores have refused to sell products at the official government rates, insisting on higher prices. Government-subsidized staples are illegally exported to Colombia by speculators and sold for higher prices. Hoarding is reported to be widespread. The traditional “market solution,” i.e., relaxation of price and currency controls and government subsidies introduced by Chávez, would no doubt spur private capitalists to produce and sell more products. Just as in Colombia and other Latin American countries, such measures would be good for the balance sheets of the capitalists, but disastrous for everybody else.
In Venezuela today, the poor are not starving, but shortages of basic products have made conditions more miserable. So long as the productive wealth of society is in private hands, production will be guided by what increases capitalist profits. The masses will remain subject to exploitation and oppression, and economic development will be subordinated to the dictates of the imperialist-dominated world market. There can be no permanent amelioration of the plight of the urban and rural poor without the smashing of the capitalist state and the overthrow of the capitalist social order. The perspective of the International Communist League is for a series of workers revolutions across the globe, which would pave the way for an internationally planned, collectivized economy and the accompanying expansion of the productive forces of society in accordance with human need.
Left Apologists for Chavismo
Most self-described socialist organizations flocked to support Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” and continue to act as the leftist marketing department for Maduro. Alan Woods, who leads the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), is prominent among these types, boasting of being a “Trotskyist” adviser to first Chávez and now Maduro. The March 5 article “Carry Out the Legacy of Hugo Chávez!” (marxist.com) by Woods lauds the toiling masses for having “saved the Revolution and pushed it forward” and beseeches them to buckle down against the “reformists” and “bureaucrats” in the Caracas government.
In the declaration “Hugo Chávez Is Dead: The Fight for Socialism Lives!” (6 March 2013) issued prior to the election of Maduro last year, the IMT elaborated: “Hugo Chávez died before completing the great task he had set before himself: the carrying out of the socialist revolution in Venezuela. It is now up to the workers and peasants—the real motor force of the Bolivarian Revolution—to carry this task out to the end.” They go on to implore: “We must ensure that the next government will carry out a socialist policy.”
The IMT would have the working masses serve as foot soldiers to bolster the position of Maduro, thereby helping to prop up capitalist rule. The glorification of a former army colonel and his acolyte, who have been at the helm of the repressive Venezuelan capitalist state for the last 16 years, disarms the workers and binds them to a wing of Venezuela’s ruling class. The only reliable defense against capitalist immiseration, whether imposed by the rightist opposition or by the Maduro government, is the independent struggle of the working class. And the fight for socialism can advance only if the proletariat struggles under its own banner. Socialism will result not from the “Bolivarian Revolution” that does nothing to challenge capitalist property but from workers revolution that sweeps away the bourgeois state apparatus and expropriates capitalist property.
The IMT sees in the “Bolivarian Revolution” a repeat of the Cuban Revolution. As IMT spokesman Jorge Martin put it, the “dynamic of action and reaction of the Venezuelan revolution reminds us in a very powerful way of the first years of the Cuban revolution” (marxist.com, 1 March 2005). Such a comparison, though, has no basis in reality.
When Castro’s forces marched into Havana on 1 January 1959 culminating several years of guerrilla war, the bourgeois army and the rest of the capitalist state apparatus that had propped up the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship collapsed in disarray. Initially, the heterogeneous petty-bourgeois rebels were committed to no more than a program of radical-democratic reforms, but under the pressure of U.S. imperialism would begin a series of nationalizations. By the time Castro declared Cuba “socialist” in 1961, the Cuban bourgeoisie and the U.S. imperialists and their CIA and Mafia henchmen had all fled and capitalist property had been expropriated. Quite unlike Venezuela, where the bourgeoisie is fully intact as a class, what was established in Cuba in 1960-61 was a deformed workers state: a society in which private property is collectivized, but a parasitic bureaucratic caste, not the workers, holds political power.
The fact that a petty-bourgeois guerrilla movement could overthrow capitalist rule was due to historically exceptional circumstances—the absence of the working class as a contender for power in its own right, hostile imperialist encirclement and the flight of the national bourgeoisie, and a lifeline thrown by the Soviet Union. The Cuban workers state itself was modeled on the Soviet Union after its bureaucratic degeneration at the hands of the Stalinist usurpers beginning in 1923-24. As we did with the Soviet degenerated workers state before its destruction, we call for the unconditional military defense of Cuba and for workers political revolution to oust the ruling bureaucratic caste.
The Castro bureaucracy in Cuba embraces the Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country.” Thus, it denies the need for proletarian revolution internationally, not only elsewhere in Latin America but particularly in the advanced capitalist world. Further damaging the defense of Cuba, the bureaucracy has cozied up to and provided “revolutionary” cover for all kinds of anti-working-class capitalist regimes. Meanwhile, various “market reform” measures introduced in response to Cuba’s severe post-Soviet economic problems have brought widening inequality (see “Cuba: Economic Crisis and ‘Market Reforms’,” WV No. 986, 16 September 2011).
In those countries like Venezuela where capitalism emerged belatedly, the bourgeoisies are too weak, too fearful of the proletariat and too dependent on the world market—dominated by the U.S., Europe and Japan—to break the chains of imperialist subjugation and resolve mass poverty and other burning social problems. The only way forward is, as Trotsky stated in The Permanent Revolution (1930), the fight for “the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.” The dictatorship of the proletariat would place on the order of the day not only democratic but also socialist tasks, such as collectivizing the economy, giving a mighty impulse to international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the advanced capitalist world would ensure against bourgeois restoration and secure the possibility of bringing socialist construction to its conclusion.
It is the task of Marxists to break illusions in bourgeois populists like Chávez in order to forge revolutionary parties of the working class. As we wrote in “Venezuela: Populist Nationalism vs. Proletarian Revolution” (WV No. 860, 9 December 2005):
“History will reserve a harsh verdict for those ‘leftists’ who promote one or another left-talking capitalist caudillo. The way forward for the downtrodden throughout the Americas does not lie through painting nationalist strongmen as revolutionaries and populist forays as revolutions. It lies instead in constructing national sections of a reforged Fourth International in the spirit of uncompromising revolutionary hostility to any and all kinds of capitalist rule.”
South of the Río Bravo, such parties will have to be built in political struggle against widespread illusions in populism and nationalism. In the U.S., a revolutionary workers party will be built in the struggle to break the proletariat from the capitalist Democratic Party and to mobilize it in solidarity with all those oppressed and exploited by U.S. imperialism around the world.
In “Venezuela: U.S. Imperialism Fuels Right-Wing Protests” (WV No. 1043, 4 April), we described the government of Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas as having “expropriated the petroleum and energy industries.” In fact, while Cárdenas expropriated the oil industry in 1938, he did not nationalize the energy sector as a whole. For example, the electrical industry was nationalized in 1960, two decades after Cárdenas had left office. (From WV No. 1049, 11 July 2014.)