In recent years, Venezuela’s social crisis has been marked by record inflation (hitting 800% last December); high unemployment (over 1 million jobs lost in 2015-16); shortages of food and medicine; and high rates of street crime, including homicide, being met by “iron fist” militarized law enforcement that brutalized the poorest neighborhoods. The disaffection of segments of Chavismo’s working class support base explains why the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition won a majority in 2015 National Assembly elections.
As the crisis for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has deepened, it has resorted to open repression, including attacks on protesters that have left over 100 dead, media censorship, and inciting PSUV supporters to physically attack the legally elected National Assembly. As much as PSUV leaders might like to pretend otherwise, they are not acting as revolutionaries—they are acting as enforcers of the logic of capital, in the context of world capitalist crisis.
This latest and most intense round of protests was triggered by the Maduro regime’s plan to create a new Constituent Assembly that would replace the National Assembly and rewrite Venezuela’s Bolivarian Constitution.
Most Venezuelans know that the MUD has no real answer to this crisis. Neither do those, like actor and policeman Oscar Perez, or National Guard captain Juan Carlos Caguaripano, who stage token acts of anti-government rebellion while auditioning for the role of the next Chavez. (At the same time, Maduro’s generals discuss recruiting snipers to attack the opposition.) Hundreds of Venezuelan and Latin American Left intellectuals and activists have written or signed petitions calling on the government to break this cycle of repression and violence.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE 1999 CONSTITUTION
That the government of Nicolas Maduro and former National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello are proposing to rewrite the 1999 Constitution at such a moment is an outrage. The great significance of the Bolivarian Constitution, which was voted for by 80% of Venezuelans, was in its broadened guarantees of human rights and economic rights. It was a real step forward, especially in recognizing anti-imperialism and multi-ethnicity as basic to these rights.
At its best, Chavismo as a mass movement did attempt to build something new on this basis.
This was, however, accompanied by two steps back. First was the personality cult built around Hugo Chavez, in the style of many previous South American caudillos. Such paternalistic faith in a “great leader” ultimately signifies a lack of confidence in the masses. Second was the dependence on high oil prices to fund social projects, cement alliances, and assert a regional leadership role. With the collapse of oil prices, most of Chavez’s project also collapsed—with his personality cult remaining as a shield for “Boliburguesía” profiteers and bureaucrats.
The reliance on oil was, in a sense, always in contradiction to a Constitution that claimed environmentalism as one of its fundamental values. It also opened the door to scandals like the bribes paid corrupt officials by Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant, for never-completed bridges, dams, subway and rail lines, and airport repairs. Some leading opposition politicians joined in this looting of state coffers when they could.
Obscenely, in the midst of all this, Maduro’s government donated $500,000 to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. If nothing else, that shows how deeply Venezuela’s social crisis is integrated into a worldwide crisis of bourgeois democracy.
Thus the overwhelming opposition to Maduro and Cabello’s current plans. Italo Zapata, director of the Federation of Communal and Commune Councils (Fenacomunal), stated recently, “This proposal violates the Constitution because it does not give the people the freedom to choose whether or not to approve the initiative. They intend to impose a second-degree election violating what the Constitution establishes.”
CONTRADICTIONS WITHIN CHAVISMO
Many long-time Chavez supporters have broken with the PSUV government. This includes the now-ousted Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, who had criticized recent repression and government corruption. She stated, as riot police besieged her office, “If they’re doing this to the chief prosecutor, imagine the helpless state all Venezuelans live in.”
Likewise former Planning Minister Jorge Giordani writes: “The people are repeatedly mentioned as an instrument of political patronage in the search for support that was lost long ago, given the loss of legitimacy of the government.” He accuses the Maduro government of wanting to implement “Goebelian socialism” (a reference to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister).
It must be stated that when Chavez himself was tested by a genuine international revolutionary movement, that of the Arab Spring, he failed miserably. Chavez had cultivated relationships with Iran, Libya, and Syria, among other oppressive regimes, as a pragmatic policy of forming an “anti-imperialist” alliance.
Yet Chavez and his successors continued to support these dictatorships despite mass revolutionary uprisings against them. In retrospect, this alliance with vicious counter-revolution was the final closing of the trap on Chavez’s vision. In denying human and economic justice to others, it laid a groundwork for nullifying the Bolivarian Constitution itself.
The contradictions in Chavismo have always been present—and deep contradictions remain in some Chavistas who are currently, and rightfully, critical of Maduro. We recognize that only a serious philosophic rethinking of Venezuela’s recent history will create the conditions for a revolutionary transcendence of the current horror. This demand should be fundamental to the current dialogue.
–Gerry Emmett, Aug. 8, 2017