HELEN DAVITT outlines how Venezuela got into its current crisis and what is at stake if the socialists fail to overcome it
FROM around the late 1950s, Latin American governments — from Cuba to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay and other South American countries — have been variously tinted by the “pink” tide of 21st century socialism that attempts to put human needs at the centre of governance.
One of the world’s largest producers of oil, on which 95 per cent of its economy depends, the Bolivarian socialist government of Venezuela has, over the last 17 years, used its oil revenues to cut poverty by half and reduce extreme poverty to 5.4 per cent.
The government has built social housing; boosted literacy; provided free healthcare and free education from primary school to universities and introduced arts, music and cultural analysis programmes and many others targeting specific problems at the local level.
From around mid-2014, when the global price of oil dropped by half, the Venezuelan economy, incomes and standards of living plummeted drastically.
In the December 2015 parliamentary elections, the failed economy, unemployment and price-rigging businesses caused people to queue for hours to obtain diminishing supplies of goods, food and medicines. The daily unrest led to the socialist government losing its majority to the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mud) coalition.
The campaigning tactics of the Mud coalition included road blocking, attacks on government buildings and hospitals.
For instigating the anti-government campaigns and the political violence that led to an initial 43 deaths, the government charged and imprisoned Mud coalition leaders, later releasing the most prominent leader to house arrest.
The mainly middle-class protesters, most without jobs and income, accused President Nicolas Maduro of dictatorship and continued with their daily demonstrations and demands for a change of government. The death toll rose to over 120, with victims on both sides.
The 1999 constitution, drafted by a constituent assembly and secured through a voter referendum, allows the Venezuelan president to call for a new constituent assembly by decree, with the new constitution having to be ratified by a national referendum.
As a political means of dealing with the social unrest, the president called for a national vote for a new assembly on July 30 2017, also declaring that “if Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian revolution destroyed, we would go to combat. We would never give up, and what we failed to achieve with votes, we would do with weapons.”
Calling the president’s decree dictatorial and claiming the makeup of the constituent assembly undemocratic — because the majority of delegates were likely to be socialists — the Mud coalition boycotted the elections.
Over eight million people — double the number predicted by both the Mud coalition and by independent experts — voted to elect 545 delegates chosen from over 6,000 candidates.
The territorial municipalities are represented by 364 delegates, with sectoral delegates having 181 members as follows: 79 for worker groups (public, industrial, service industry, oil workers etc); 24 for communal councils; pensioners 28; students 24; peasantry and fishermen eight; representatives of indigenous groups eight; disabled people five; businessmen and women five.
The goals of the constituent assembly are to overcome internal conflicts and restore peace; give the population the right to decide on Venezuela’s future; set out viable plans for developing a post-oil economy; tackle corruption and financial speculation; grant constitutional status to the communal councils as new forms of democracy; promote pluriculturalism over racial and social hatred; preserve biodiversity and promote ecological culture; recognise youth rights and defend Venezuela against foreign intervention.
Hanging in the balance is the question of whether the socialist government’s years of work on poverty reduction; on building social housing; its provision of healthcare and its drives for economic, political and analytic education can convince the whole population — inclusive of a viciously enraged and fearful right-wing — that solutions to the competitive instability and planetary unsustainability of capitalism won’t be found in reversions to more of the same.
With the comparatively high voter turnout signalling that the Mud coalition’s December 2015 election gains were not as secure as many had been led to believe, the daily demonstrations and violence diminished immediately after the vote. The Mud coalition also declared it would participate in the December 2017 vote to elect state governors and legislators.
Governments of Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Russia and Syria congratulated Venezuela on the elections. Most South American governments, Spain, Canada, Britain and the US did not recognise the legitimacy of the vote.
The US slapped ready-and-waiting financial sanctions against any of Maduro’s assets and other government officials that may come under US jurisdiction. It also prohibited US businesses from conducting commerce with Venezuela.
The US President Donald Trump also threatened to use military force saying: “We have many options for Venezuela, this is our neighbour. We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”
Similar struggles are ongoing. In Brazil, the former left-wing president Dilma Rousseff, who was deposed and replaced by a right-wing Michel Temer, warned against foreign meddling in Venezuela, stating that military intervention could lead to a failed Venezuelan state, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What will British progressive forces learn from Venezuela’s attempts to transition from oligarchic, class-based capitalism to governance that has at its heart continuous human development for all? What socioeconomic and political strategies will British progressive forces begin to fashion for themselves?
After decades of being political taboo, socialism is starting to emerge into the mainstream as a credible alternative to neoliberal capitalism.