Next on Trump’s list
Events in Venezuela amount to an imperialist coup attempt - but the left still draws no lessons from the failures of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’. Paul Demarty investigates
The political situation in Venezuela seems, for now, to have reached a rather tense stalemate.
The media in America and Europe has had to retreat from taking seriously Juan Guaidó’s claim to actually rule as interim president; but they, and their respective governments, have played their hand in supporting him. Nicolás Maduro refuses to budge, bristling intransigently at the endless demands for fresh elections and mass rightwing protests; yet he seems quite as incapable of restoring what passed for order before this latest phase of Venezuela’s descent into chaos. The situation has gotten quite so dangerous due to the swaggering machismo of the president - the president of the United States, that is - who refuses to rule out a military intervention in this particular corner of Uncle Sam’s backyard.
Yet the deadlock cannot but remind us of an earlier moment in recent Venezuelan history, when a CIA-backed coup against Maduro’s illustrious predecessor, Hugo Chávez, failed ignominiously back in 2002. Astroturfed protests led a businessman, backed by reactionary army officers, to declare himself interim president and suspend the constitution; but Chávez was swept back into power within days. It was the decisive moment that propelled him into left superstardom the world over, and fired the starting gun on the wave of similar left-Bonapartist regimes that called itself the ‘Bolivarian revolution’. The differences with today are all too obvious - Maduro is not about to defeat his enemies decisively, at any rate, and there is a real danger that the coup-makers will succeed.
However the current situation plays out, it looks like the end of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ as we know it. At its core, Chávez’s project was quite straightforward. Venezuela is extraordinarily oil-rich. Chávez proceeded to expand the holdings of the state oil company, PDVSA, at the expense of international capital. This provided a substantial revenue base for redistribution to his core electoral supporters among the urban and rural poor. Social programmes were stepped up; doctors were brought in from Cuba, in a highly symbolic deal between the older and newer generations of Latin American leftism.
Chávez was very good at telling people what they wanted to hear, and giving them enough of what they wanted that they continued to support him. As it went for the Venezuelan popular classes, so for an army of international admirers. The bandwagon-jumpers and spear-carriers of the global left - the remnants of the anti-globalisation movement, Stalinists, Mandelites and so forth - were utterly bewitched. And Chávez knew the buttons to press. He was going to found a fifth international; he quoted Trotsky to Trotskyists and Castro to Castroites; he talked big about 21st century socialism. We would say that it was quite remarkable how easily people were taken in, when - upon the most cursory examination - 21st century socialism turned out to be 20th century left nationalism, propped up by PDVSA’s petro-dollars; but then it isn’t remarkable at all, but merely typical of leftwing credulousness.
Not even Chávez’s most obsequious admirers can have expected him to live forever; and, after a long struggle with cancer, he passed away in 2013. There were already signs that the regime was out of ideas - long-standing problems, like a soaring crime rate that left Caracas one of the most violent cities in the region, seemed intractable and, while many had been lifted out of poverty, there had been little improvement in the quality of housing and basic infrastructure. It is all too convenient to blame Maduro for the crisis that followed, but somewhat unfair - Chávez’s successor had the misfortune of occupying the top job when the music stopped.
In 2014, the global price of oil collapsed. A slowdown in industrial output led to demand shrinkage, starting the slide; but the oil price is extremely easily manipulable, and it is clear that the US state department leaned on oil-producing allies, especially Saudi Arabia, to keep production levels up, so as to punish its enemies. Foremost among them at the time was Putin’s Russia, whose intervention in the Ukrainian ‘colour revolution’ and defensive annexation of Crimea led to a diplomatic crisis. Venezuela was highly vulnerable too, however, and a deep economic and political crisis followed, which continues today. Matters were made worse by US sanctions that forbid export of oil-extraction equipment to Venezuela.
Since the recent escalation in hostilities, the sanctions have been ratcheted up further, with US companies banned from doing business with PDVSA (any monies paid will go into an escrow account to be handed over to wannabe-president Guaidó, as and when he succeeds in setting himself up as Trump’s viceroy in Caracas). This is no small matter - Venezuela is extremely reliant on oil exports to the US (they generate revenue, as opposed to exports to China and Russia, which principally service debts).
There are ominous signs that things may not stop there. Trump refuses to rule out military action; his secretary of state is apparently considering deploying troops to neighbouring Colombia, whose government is fanatically rightwing and historically connected to counterrevolutionary death squads during that country’s long civil war, and will thus be quite happy to abet an American invasion. Trump himself is increasingly hemmed in at home; but the American constitution - as it operates in practice, anyway - offers broad discretion to the commander in chief in matters of war and peace. A spectacular crusade for ‘freedom’ the far side of the Caribbean would be just the sort of stunt he needs to set up a Hottentot election next year.
Though the ‘Bolivarian armed forces’ are not likely to put up much resistance to the conventional army of the United States, there remains, of course, the question of winning the peace, and another protracted and bloody conflict after the fashion of Colombia or other places in the USA’s backyard in the post-war era cannot be ruled out if the Yankees are too obviously to blame. There remains the question of whether the army will even try to fight back in such a case, and Maduro’s prima facie bizarre failure to arrest his usurper - combined with frequent frantic visits to military units - suggests a level of worry about their loyalty that bodes ill for the regime’s supporters.
In that light, the future is perhaps not a return to the bloodbaths of Colombia and El Salvador, but the present state of Brazil. Guaidó is currently basked in the light of international adulation, but he has been chumming up with Jair Bolsonaro ever since the latter’s election; add a fanatical middle class revolt against a left regime to a foreign-backed coup, and the result is just such a regime of foul reaction.
But back to Maduro’s supporters: what of international Chávez-fandom? On one level, these events are easily digested by Chávistas: their character as an imperialist, corrupt-police action in the US’s near abroad are so transparent that even the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has had to denounce it.1 Too easily digested by half, really, as will become clear from a look at a piece from the International Marxist Tendency - the splinter of Militant that hitched its wagon to the ‘Venezuelan Revolution’ early on and remains its most vociferous Trotskyist publicist.2
This article, by IMT international secretariat member Jorge Martin, is not at all without interest. The comrade goes into some detail on the specifics of sanctions and provocations against the regime, and we will not recapitulate these points here, except to say that there are far worse introductions to the topic. What, however, are comrade Martin’s political conclusions?
The only way to effectively fight off this imperialist coup is by taking revolutionary measures and leaning on the revolutionary masses … The US has seized Venezuelan property and imposed sanctions. The proportionate response would have been to seize all property of US multinationals in Venezuela … The Bank of England has stolen 14 tons of gold from Venezuela. Venezuela would be justified in seizing assets for the same amount from UK companies in Venezuela.
From there, we build up to the Empyrean ecstasies of social revolution:
In order to mobilise the revolutionary energy of workers and peasants, a policy is needed that puts their needs first: repudiate the foreign debt, expropriate the food distribution chain, give the land to the peasants and arm them to defend it; and plan the economy democratically under workers’ and peasants’ control to fulfil the needs of the people. This is the line that the comrades of the [IMT] are agitating for in Venezuela.
There are many remarkable features of this prescription. The first is the enormous overestimation of the popular support for revolutionary socialism in the Venezuelan population. In many respects, the demands raised here are salutary, but their being raised as a way out of the current crisis for the Venezuelan left is almost comical. Arm the people? Yes - not a moment too soon! Alas, decades too late. In order for any of this to have had any traction, it would be necessary to have undermined trust in military-Bonapartist ‘socialism’ from the get-go, to have bravely pointed out its limits to the masses - so far as was possible -when the going was good. As Tory idiots like to say, when justifying austerity policies, you need to mend the roof while the sun is shining. The IMT did no such thing, instead setting itself up as an obsequious camp follower for the photogenic colonels.
Today, comrade, we are where we are, and the peasants and workers are not armed, or even conscious of the need for arms. But who would trust the army to arm the masses now? Not comrade Martin, who correctly reminds us that “[Augusto] Pinochet was appointed by president Allende as the head of the armed forces after the failed tanquetazo coup of June 1973 as a constitutionalist officer.”
Yet this is not the most serious problem, which is truly staring comrade Martin in the face. Given his punishingly detailed analysis of US and European sanctions, one thing is abundantly clear - Venezuela is in no position to face down the power of international capital. Doing so would mean, for a start, giving up its oil industry entirely, since it cannot operate without foreign investment, foreign industrial products and access to the most diplomatically sensitive of global commodities markets. Martin would almost have us believe that Maduro is merely being timid; perhaps we might suggest that he knows something Martin is apparently incapable of learning. Nobody can eat revolutionary energy, or drink defiance.
The surprise is not that Bolivarian ‘socialism’ is in a state of collapse, but that it held on for so long. An international movement might reverse the fortunes of the coup-makers, and offer a way out of Chávismo that does not lead the western hemisphere further into Trumpian and Bolsonarian barbarism; but such a solution looks desperately unlikely at present.
1. https://workersliberty.org/story/2019-02-01/soft-coup-venezuela - they do so only resentfully, of course. ↩
2. www.socialist.net/us-tightens-the-noose-on-venezuela-will-the-coup-succeed.htm. ↩