Building a Critical Left Solidarity Movement

I recently received a mailing from the Marin Task Force on Latin America. Included among the flyers was a letter Gregory Wilpert wrote, criticizing the editors of Dissident Voice for having published my article on this year’s Venezuelan elections.

I’d been expecting to see hit pieces directed against me and coming from the authoritarian, doctrinaire left, but this was a surprise. First, while I’d seen the letter previously (Wilpert had evidently cc’ed me when he sent it to, it hadn’t appeared anywhere as an “open letter.” Given that there was no reference to the original article, nor did the Task Force have the decency to print my response (or, for that matter, to respond to my email inquiring into the matter), I can only interpret their actions as an attempt to defame me for having taken a more critical stance toward the Bolivarian government of Venezuela.

In his letter, Wilpert warned solidarity activists against following my example, urging them not to “throw everything overboard and join the opposition as whole-heartedly as he seems to have done, and thereby end up serving the privileged classes.” I have no interest in defending myself or my perspective, but I do feel it’s time to clarify why I have withdrawn my support for many of the policies the Bolivarian government of Venezuela, and specify which of its policies I do support.

For a number of years I reserved judgment about the Partido Socialista Unida de Venezuela (PSUV), just as I reserved judgment about the late President Hugo Chávez’s authoritarian tendencies, his apparent unwillingness to attack corruption among his cronies, and, in general terms, a “socialist project” without socialism and a revolutionary process without a revolution. But as I visited Venezuela most years, my doubts about the prospects for the “Bolivarian Revolution” increased.

Certainly there were, and are, many good revolutionary socialist people on the ground doing great work in Venezuela. There are also many government welfare projects that have benefitted people who have been excluded from the benefits of the nation’s oil wealth for far too long. There are also honest, upright and dedicated people in the bureaucracy of the PSUV and the government who have carried out their work excellently.

These are all the reasons that, for many years, I refused to criticize the process Venezuela has undergone now for fourteen years. I didn’t want to undermine what seemed to me on balance to be a more positive than negative project which had great prospects at certain moments, especially when Chávez promised to punish and end corruption; develop the national industries (remember “endogenous development”?); distribute land and make it more productive; deepen democracy and the process of change with “protagonistic, participative democracy.”

In some respects this process under Chávez made great gains, especially in eliminating illiteracy, instituting the community councils and inspiring many Venezuelans to build another possible world. Nevertheless, I am no longer convinced that on balance the Bolivarian Process has done more good than bad, nor vice versa. I remain agnostic and feel that judgment can really only honestly be made in the future. At the same time, I feel it’s critical for those of us in the solidarity movement, those of us who look to Latin America for inspiration and ideas to transform our own society, to lay aside ideological blinders and look at the reality, good, bad, beautiful and ugly.

I was criticized in a recent talk on Venezuela that I gave in Berkeley for focusing too much on the negative about the Bolivarian process. One member of the audience accused me of having “gone over to the dark side.” I invited person, if he wished to see the positive side of the process, to take a look at my movie, made at my own expense, with virtually no crew nor assistance other than critical comments offered by my publisher, PM Press and a few friends who volunteered their opinions and some assistance. That movie (“Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out,” 2008, PM Press) while it ends on a “high” note of optimism, leaves the viewer with many questions and doubts, specifically regarding any state project attempting to build socialism with cooperative small businesses.

Since making that movie, my questions and doubts have increased, and the worst of my fears were confirmed as I began to deepen my investigations on a month-long trip to Venezuela this past April, when I spent time in Puerto Ordaz, Guayana, in the state of Bolivar. This was the region where Chavez’s much-touted “Plan Socialista de Guayana” was to be implemented, and I hoped to find out how that plan was working in fact.

The Basic Industries of Guayana were part of the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana) and founded as part of Carlos Andres Pérez’s plan to build the “Great Venezuela” in 1961. The corporation served as an umbrella for the Basic Industries of Alcasa, Venalum (aluminum industries), Minerven (gold mining) as well as SIDOR, Ferrominera (iron, steel) and other mining and refining industries. Guayana is extraordinarily rich in non-oil resources so the idea was to “sembrar el petróleo” or “sow the oil” and diversify the Venezuelan economy as well as offer high-paying union jobs to Venezuelan workers.

I learned more than I’d hoped or expected as I interviewed journalists and union workers in the Basic Industries (iron, aluminum, coal, etc) that had undergone nationalization a few years before (from 2006 to the present). In preparation for an interview I was trying to arrange with Damian Prat (see his website at or his columns at Correo del Caroní ) I read his detailed work on what amounted to the destruction of the Basic Industries under the Chávez government, Guayana: El milagro al revés. The book, published in 2012 is a damning indictment against the policies of a government that, Prat maintains, is neither “socialist, revolutionary nor even nationalist.”

There was a remarkable consistency to everyone’s story in Guayana, and one I could easily summarize here. The “worker” government of Chávez had refused to recognize the collective bargaining of independent unions in the nationalized industries of Guayana. Most employees of the Basic Industries are working there today on contracts that expired years ago, before Chávez nationalized their companies. Meanwhile, the government has doubled the workforce of the Basic Industries, “packing the units” in an attempt to wrest control from independent unions. This at a time when most of these same companies are operating at half or less of their capacity. Corruption is so massive that it appears to be state policy. Indeed, the small fish swimming around PSUV governor Francisco Rangel that have been sacrificed in a minor clean-up operation indicate that the governor, at last, has given all the directions.

Due to Chávez’s political appointments to head companies he nationalized, management posts were given to people who were irresponsible, incompetent, corrupt, or all three.  As Damian Prat puts it, “the Socialist Guayana Plan reproduces a ruinous hyperbureaucracy of a highly unproductive economy that is, in the end, profoundly anti-worker and anti-popular, at the same time that it concentrates all power in the hands of the governing group…”  Needless to say, this resulted in the newly nationalized industries being terribly mismanaged. Additionally, as Prat points out in his book, and as union workers corroborated in interviews I did in Puerto Ordaz, there was little or no investment in infrastructure or maintenance so that today those nationalized industries, and most nationalized industries of the nation, are now operating at between one quarter to one half of their pre-nationalized levels.  For example, SIDOR (Siderúrgica del Orinoco) in 2012 dropped to its lowest levels in 30 years, going from 4.3 million tons of iron production before nationalization to 1.7 million tons.

Because Chávez never invested in much needed electrical plants to keep pace with national demand (despite warnings given in 2003), when drought hit the hydroelectric plants and shortages occurred, he rationed electricity to the Basic Industries to keep electricity going to consumers in Caracas. And so, during the recession from 2008 to 2012 when there were record-high prices for commodities like iron, aluminum, gold etc., Venezuela not only no longer exported these commodities, but it also was forced to import many of them like aluminum, coke for smelting, and others. This is all detailed in Prat’s book.

The Basic Industries of Guayana, once a promising venture for the diversification of the economy, today is in ruins, a shell of what it once was.  The ovens at Carbonorca are crumbling concrete block walls and when I visited the workers at the plant to do an interview, they hadn’t worked for over two weeks, simply because the plant wasn’t in production. They were briefly called in to work for a few days and then were once again inactive for sixteen days straight. Orinoco Iron, as I passed by, was completely paralyzed: not a wheel was moving on the conveyor belts nor did a puff of smoke rise from the smoke stacks of the smelters.

Feliciano Guzmán, of the Worker’s Federation of Bolivar State (Fetrabolivar), says that “Under previous governments these productive businesses took five percent from their profits and paid into the CVG, to pay for the electricity, the roads, the sporting areas. And now nothing comes to CVG because the companies aren’t producing anything. Everything relies on subsidies from PDVSA, the state oil company.”

But PDVSA isn’t much more sustainable since its production is also dropping 3-4% per year and nearly a third of its earnings are spent buying gas, according to the May 6, 2013 issue of El Comercio. Yes, in one of the great ironies of “endogenous development” Venezuela is even forced to import millions of barrels of refined gas to keep up with internal consumption. Currently, Venezuela imports about one quarter of the gas it uses internally and it is estimated the price of gas in Venezuela (which now costs a few pennies per gallon) would have to be increased 900% just to cover the costs of production.

However, it’s not as if PDVSA has lots of money to throw around. According to the April 23, 2013 edition of El Comercio, of every $100 of PDVSA’s income, only $4 are real net profit. In the article entitled “De cada 10 dólares que ingresan a PDVSA apenas 4 son ganancia net real” bylined Jose Gil, this fact is hidden behind a “smokescreen to cover up the real numbers of state production.”

In fact, the country’s economy was so mismanaged under Chávez and now under Maduro, that at a time of record-high oil prices, the economy is in shambles and the nation’s public foreign debt has more than tripled in the first thirteen years under Chávez, rising from $24.2 billion to $88.7 billion as of the first quarter of 2012. That’s not even taking into account PDVSA’s estimated $40 billion debt, according to El Comercio, April 17, 2013. In other words, the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” is bankrupt: morally, ideologically and economically.

This explains in large part the defection of many Venezuelans to a now very diverse opposition. It also explains why Maduro nearly lost the April 15th election and why, if elections were held today, he would certainly lose.

While the government continues to blame the “capitalists and ultra-right and imperialists” for the problems besieging the country, it’s clear that its own economic policies are to blame. Given that Venezuela relies on imports for 70% of its food and those imports are paid for in dollars, the government has to ensure access to dollars to importers, which it refused to do throughout the entire first half of the year. The transition of government corresponded with a change-over of foreign exchange systems (from Sitme to Sicad). Importers found it nearly impossible to get dollars and were unable to import.

As inflation and devaluation ate away at the value of the nation’s currency, the bolívar, sensible businesses did what sensible businesses do in such a context: they invested in products, knowing that the value of tangible products (especially in an economy dependent as Venezuela is on imports) will go up as surely as the value of money drops. And so “hoarding” and “speculation” took a toll, but as a result of an out-of-control economy more than from “capitalist perversity.

Maduro considered all these problems the result of “an economic war,” yet he seemed to be unaware that he was holding the guns that were aimed at him. This became evident when Maduro accused Polar, the nation’s largest producer of arepa flour, of “sabotage.” Polar president Lorenzo Mendoza came out swinging. He pointed out that the real problem wasn’t Polar, which produced 48% of the flour and surpassed production goals, but the other 16 companies that provided the other 52% of the flour. Ten of those companies were state-run.

I left my friends in Venezuela planning trips to the supermarket based on when the trucks might arrive with the bags of flour from Polar. The family I stayed with spent only a week using napkins in the bathroom, rather than toilet paper, but the deeper problems of inflation, which surpassed 6% in May alone, was at nearly 20% at that point of the year, eating up Maduro’s “generous” 20% raise in the minimum wage even as he offered it.

Given this scenario, what should be the response of the left Venezuelan solidarity movement to all these disturbing trends? Should we turn away and ignore the information? Should we lie about it? Should we deny it and join our voices with those of the PSUV elite, the corrupt heads of the party like Diosdado Cabello, implicated by none other than Mario Silva, the major propagandist for the Bolivarian Process, who accused the speaker of Parliament of corruption, graft and fraud? Should we continue to make excuses for incompetence, corruption and irresponsibility and thereby make ourselves accomplices?

Or should we tell the truth? Should we admit that the process in Venezuela is going the wrong direction and it needs to correct its course before it destroys itself and the country it ostensibly represents, dragging down many great projects like ALBA, CELAC, UNASUR and others with it? Should we ignore the intransigence of the government, or stand with the workers and social movements of the country who are continuing a fight for justice, democracy and socialism?

There was a time when the left actively engaged in a discussion on whether or not to support “state capitalist” revolutions like the USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc. or autonomous attempts at building socialism. That debate ended briefly with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defection of “Communist” China to the capitalist camp. With the rise of the Zapatistas (EZLN) in Mexico and the indigenous and autonomist social movements throughout Latin America, the debate was briefly renewed. Now, with the coming to power of “progressive” governments in Latin America, that debate is once again being squelched in favor of a doctrinaire statist consensus on much of the left.

The old authoritarian doctrinaire left continues today even under the guise of the “Socialism of the Twenty-First Century,” and many of those who work in its ranks are comrades, friends and neighbors. Some of us find ourselves in conflict with that left as we seek to build a democratic, pluralistic project, and increasing numbers of solidarity activists will find themselves more and more aligned with the ranks of the unionists in Guayana, with journalists like Damian Prat, with Venezuelan human rights activists like Rafael Uzcátegui of PROVEA and co-editor of the anarchist newspaper, El Libertario, and many on the left who find themselves in opposition to the Bolivarian government with its embedded Leninist PSUV.

We haven’t divided from the Bolivarian left: they have divided from us. It’s the solidarity activists for Venezuela who seem incapable of allowing criticism aimed at correcting destructive policies. It’s the privileged classes of the Bolivarian elite (known in Venezuela as the “Boliburgos) who need to enter into dialogue with the growing population of Venezuelans they’ve dismissed as “escualidos” and begin, in the spirit of the Zapatistas, to create a “world in which many worlds fit.”

Clifton Ross is the writer, director and producer of the feature-length documentary, “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out” (2008 PM Press) and co-editor with Marcy Rein of “Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements” due out in November 2013 with PM Press. He can be reached at clifross1(at)