Don’t trust Maduro

There is a danger that the Chávista regime will arrive at a compromise with the right, warns Daniel Harvey

Over the last two weeks in Venezuela there has been no let-up in clashes between the rightwing opposition, led by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática), and the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) led by president Nicolás Maduro. Almost exactly a year ago his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, died of throat cancer, leaving the future of the regime in the balance, as the right began to make electoral ground.

The wealthy opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, was defeated last year in the presidential election by a narrow margin of just over one percent. Since then the opposition has been more convincingly defeated in municipal elections in December, with the government winning 49% versus the opposition’s 43%.

Following this failure to dislodge the PSUV, the opposition switched tactics, with Capriles calling for street demonstrations in protest at the dire economic situation. There has been a dramatic increase in the rate of inflation, currently officially at about 50%, but for many this has been compounded by shortages of staple goods. Many Venezuelans have been queuing for hours before shops open in order to have a chance of buying what becomes available.

Venezuela has been hit by a collapse in production, which means that the country has been able neither to provide for itself nor export goods to balance against necessary imports. Oil is virtually the only export still flowing satisfactorily, but car production, for instance, has completely flat-lined. One often cited statistic is that Venezuela has produced only a couple of hundred cars since the year began - which is half the production for a single day under normal conditions. Foreign direct investment has been coming from China in the recent past, but it is clearly not enough to offset the current problems.

At the moment, demonstrations seem confined to the student movement and the rightwing opposition. Originally Capriles called for a day of protest on the February 12 ‘Day of Youth’, and this brought the students out onto the streets with slogans about the lack of prospects and shortages. The mostly middle class protestors who joined them have demanded action against crime, which has escalated sharply during the Chávista period, and corruption, which, it is fair to say, is endemic. On the one hand, the murder rate has increased from 25 to 79 homicides per 100,000 since 1999 and, on the other hand, one widely cited figure is that $2 billion have disappeared from public accounts in the last year alone in the form of bribes.


The Maduro government has employed heavy-handed tactics to crack down on street demonstrations using the National Guard and riot police. For the most part they have been using tear gas and truncheons, but shots have also fire has been applied in some situations, and 23 protestors have been killed.

Among the dead was a leader of the student movement in Venezuela, Daniel Tinoco, who was shot in the chest during clashes in San Christóbal on March 10. So far well over 300 people have been shot and wounded. Protestors have taken to setting up barricades and throwing rocks and other missiles at police.

To further complicate matters, organised criminal gangs, typically centred on drug and oil trafficking over the border with Colombia, have merged with some opposition protests - they are identifiable thanks to their black masks. At the same time, elements loyal to the government have organised into colectivos - armed groups typically riding on motorcycles who harass and assault opposition protestors. The country is awash with guns, so the potential for an escalation is very high.

At the moment, however, the main bulk of protests are taking the form of assemblies confined to mainly middle class areas. Protests in central Caracas have been fairly well attended, but nowhere near large enough to seriously worry the government. As things stand, the majority of Venezuela’s working class and poor remain loyal to the Chávistas, and Chávez himself is still the object of adulation.

No-one can deny that the lives of poor Venezuelans have been transformed for the better; extreme poverty has fallen by two thirds since 1999 and infant mortality has nearly halved, as oil revenues, which rose from $14.5 billion to $60 billion over the same period, have financed social programmes (as well as corrupt officials). Despite the opposition’s attempts to convince working class Venezuelans that it represents the ‘national interest’ and the entire population, the suspicion of the right remains deep and well-founded.

The adoption by the opposition of ‘empty pots’ protests, where mainly women bang saucepans at prearranged times in protest at food shortages, recalls the tactic employed by the right in Chile prior to the military coup against the popular front government of Salvador Allende in 1973.

PSUV loyalists have been very successful at reminding Venezuelans of this history, as well as of the more recent coup attempt in 2002, which saw Chávez temporarily ousted until popular protests saw him reinstated. Sections of the opposition have been implicated in the 2002 events, including Capriles himself. There is also the threat of secession from wealthier regions - just as in Bolivia fascist groups tried to lead the richer south in a breakaway from the poorer Andean north. In Venezuela Trujillo, Mérida and Zulia are possible candidates for a copycat action.


As things stand then, Maduro looks safe in his job for the time being (his term expires in 2019) - that is, unless the opposition can start convincing sections of the working class to switch sides, which is unlikely. But Maduro’s actual response has been mixed. It has vacillated between hard, repressive policies - locking up oppositionists, including one of its leaders, Leopoldo López Mendoza - and offering talks (there has even been talk of a coalition in some quarters).

Maduro has been vociferous in his condemnation of opposition leaders as US stooges, which they undoubtedly are for the most part. Similarly, his rhetoric at his inauguration was for a deepening of the revolution in Venezuela - although the reality is rather different - an increasing militarisation of the regime, as it merges more closely with the armed forces (Chávez himself was, of course, an army general before taking power). Meanwhile, members of the corrupt elite within the government have formed a powerful bureaucracy, intersected by rival fiefdoms funnelling money into the pockets of different cliques.

But the most worrying development in Maduro’s strategy of negotiations with the opposition has been his engagement with the prominent plutocrat, Lorenzo Mendoza, ostensibly for talks about currency speculation. But it seems that they discussed a possible agreement over a number of economic “points of consideration”. Maduro seems to be attempting to reach a negotiated settlement and, although none of the main leaders of the opposition were present, Mendoza was undoubtedly acting as its representative, advocating a dialogue between private capital and the government.

Clearly, a settlement with the opposition along these lines would not be to the advantage of the working class and poor - precisely the forces that have kept the government afloat, having loyally turned out to support it whenever it has faced difficulties in the past. It is these forces that must now be mobilised - firstly, as an immediate priority, in order to defeat the immediate rightwing threat and then to organise for power in their own name.

However, there is very little sign of the Venezuelan working class organising in this way. There is a lacklustre response to the rightwing protest movement from Chávista supporters, who are being marshalled by bureaucrats. There is a real possibility of the government arriving at a comfortable compromise, which would likely line the pockets of the state bureaucracy even more .