Mass protests have featured professionals such as teachers, medical personnel and small business people, but have of lately been spearheaded by students. On February 12 MUD called a ‘Day of Youth’. One of the main concerns is the high crime rate – not least murders, which has more than trebled from 25 to 79 per 100,000 of the population (122 per 100,000 in Caracas). Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world.2
This high murder rate, together with similar increases in robberies, kidnappings and car-jackings, results to a large extent fromorganised crime. For example, there were 583 kidnappings reported in 2012, but police estimate that this represents only about 20% of the actual figure, as most cases go unreported. Armed robberies are numerous, and criminal gangs are able to set up checkpoints with impunity in some areas. The conviction rate for murder is as low as 10%, meaning effective impunity.3
In this context, it is not hard to see why the government has been losing support. Complaints from protesters have mainly emphasised what they see as the disintegration of society.
But behind the spiralling levels of crime is the obvious failure of the economic programme. Class-based inequality continues to scar life. So does corruption, with government cronies feeding off the mushrooming oil revenues. Leading figures in the USP now constitute a super-rich, a ‘revolutionary bourgeoisie’.4
Corruption is, of course, a multi-layered phenomenon. According to one estimate, $17 billion is spent on bribes, while billions more disappear into untraceable bank accounts. Similarly, what is called in the jargon systemic corruption, as large state-owned corporations interface with the private sector, has also expanded dramatically.
The Chávez regime was well known for purging government bureaucracies of all opponents, whilst bringing in loyalists. At the same time private companies with suspicious ownership structures have been used to oversee government programmes. The Proarepa group, for instance, which manages the government’s food handout programme, is not only owned by Chávez’s brother, Adán, but has an upper management packed by leading USP officials. Investigations into this arrangement have been hurriedly terminated.5
Furthermore, as is the case in all rentier states, there is an inevitable unbalancing effect, as the country comes to rely more and more on easy money and the rest of industry fails to keep pace. Imports flood in and inflation soars. Official statistics put inflation at 50%. Chávez deployed the military against those accused of hoarding goods in response to his price controls. A chronic shortage of toilet paper has led to similar threats from president Maduro. Even so, shops and supermarkets across Venezuela are often bare. Another cause of angry protests.
As much as the government would like to blame the capitalists for deliberately creating an economic crisis for its own purposes, the fact is that discontent amongst Venezuelan workers has been growing too. Strikes have become common. The Bolivarian revolution has not stopped increasing casualisation and other neoliberal type measures.
And the fact that the regime has its roots in the military only reinforces its bureaucratic tendencies. Thirteen protesters have now been shot dead by police, including a mother with her child. Meanwhile, censorship, particularly in relation to the internet, is become more pronounced.
On Venezuelan television there is surprisingly little coverage of the protests, whilst the response of Maduro and other USP leaders has been to accuse the protesters of being “fascists” and working on behalf of the CIA, as well as the plutocratic president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. No doubt there are some such elements, and the right is doubtless trying destabilise the country. Nevertheless, the support base of the Bolivarian revolution is being hollowed out because of the government’s own actions.
The Venezuelan military has grown increasingly influential and powerful, as its officer class has become ever more integrated into the regime. The interior minister, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, sent a battalion of paratroopers into the border region of Tachira in response to the protests there, turning the area into what some have described as a “free-fire zone”.6
There has been a lot of criticism on the left of the Human Rights Watch report which lays out in 200 pages of detail the political discrimination, the undermining of the courts, the curtailment of the media and organised labour under Chávez.7 A list of distinguished academics got in on the act, excusing the government from criticism as far as they could.8 No doubt Human Rights Watch is influenced by US and western interests, as are Amnesty International and other NGOs. But that does not mean we can ignore the reality of repression just because Chávez called himself a 21st century socialist.
What about the attitude of the left in Britain to the Venezuelan government? It has varied from the supine to the faintly critical over the last week, warning of the danger of a rightwing takeover, jeopardising the gains made by the poor over the last decade and a half.
Socialist Action has been the most fawning, repeating Maduro almost word for word. Its February 13 statement focuses on a condemnation of the “extreme right wing” (a phrase used over and over again) for seeking a salida (ousting) of the legitimate government. The statement offers “unconditional support for president Maduro”. There is not even a hint that there could be legitimate grievances at play.
SA makes no criticism whatsoever of the shooting of protesters. The statement mentions two deaths and 23 injuries, but justifies this by parroting Maduro’s line that we are seeing a repeat of the rightwing provocations of 2002. The statement condemns violence only from the right, and not from the military.9
Socialist Worker’s comment appears under the headline, “Old rulers see chance for revenge”, but it too does not mention the deaths caused by the military, or the strikes and protests of the poor, except those in support of the government. It briefly mentions that there may be some issues with corruption and shortages, but ends on the basic loyalty of the poor to the regime and that “real solutions to the real problems they face are the only way to guarantee that the old order will never return”.10
No, what is needed is working class political independence. That, of course, does not mean joining with the right and those who wish to bring about another coup. No, it is perfectly possible to fight the right today, in order to fight the Chávista state bureaucracy tomorrow.
1. The Guardian October 4 2012.
6. The Guardian February 21.
10. Socialist Worker February 25.