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If Chávez Were Alive Today, Would the Situation in Venezuela be Different?

US policy since Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 has been regime change to return the oil-rich South American nation to the neo-liberal fold. After 17 years of Chávista polices, the US wants nothing more than for poor Venezuelans to suffer as much as possible – to make their economy scream – so that the popular movement will grow dissatisfied with the socialist inclined leadership.

Current Situation in Venezuela

If imposition of misery in Venezuela can be counted as a US policy victory, than the hegemon to the north has been supremely successful. Daily the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post report on the “collapse” of Venezuela and call for outside intervention into the “humanitarian crisis.”

In a more objective reporting from Venezuela, Gabriel Hetland cautions “the crisis” in Venezuela is “deep but not cataclysmic, and mainstream US media have consistently exaggerated the extent of it.” Hetland found mounting inflation, serious shortages of food and medicines, and growing popular discontent.

Hetland also noted that commerce is still thriving and in affluent areas the restaurants are booming and supermarket shelves are overflowing with consumer products. While public hospitals are having problems, private health care for the rich and free public clinics for the poor are functioning well. Overall, though, the poor are hard hit.

Would the situation have been any different had Chávez still been president of Venezuela?

Bolivarian Revolution

Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1999 and inherited an oil-dependent economy characterized by reliance on agricultural imports and chronic inflation. Venezuela was also a highly class polarized society with high crime and poverty rates.

The Chávistas call their popular movement the Bolivarian Revolution. But if their movement is a “revolution,” it is at best an incomplete one. Compromises are necessary, which would not be required had both the state and the economy been under control of the revolutionaries. The Chávistas are not unaware of this inconsistency, when they explain that their “revolution” is really a “process.”

While the Chávistas controlled the executive and, until this year, the legislative branches of government, power has been highly contested elsewhere. After the US-backed failed 2002 coup, disloyal elements of the military were exposed and removed. The Chávistas set about reforming an inherited judiciary, penal system, and law enforcement apparatus, which were so thoroughly corrupt that firing dishonest police would only result in converting part-time criminals to full-time.

But even more important for Venezuela, as for any other capitalist country, is that the commanding heights of the national economy are controlled by an owning class whose antipathy of social change is immense. This includes not only the manufacturing, service, and major agricultural sectors, but a privately owned and rabidly hostile mass media.

In addition, the Venezuelan economy is integrated with the world economy, which is dominated by institutions with a neo-liberal agenda of all power to capital. And over-arching all of this is the US government organizing, funding, and directing the domestic and international opposition to the Chávista project.

Therein lies the dilemma of the transition from capitalism to socialism. As vice president of Bolivia Álvaro García Linera famously commented, the conversion to socialism under such circumstances is like trying to overhaul the engine of your car while it is running.

Transition to Socialism

Chávez in his 14 years in office played an obligatory cat-and-mouse game with the owning class, sometimes confiscating particularly egregious corporations and sometimes looking aside or entering into partnerships with the more cooperative so-called boliburguesía. Chavez, it appears, was well aware of these Faustian bargains, but also understood that the configuration of class forces did not (yet) allow him to expropriate his class opponents wholesale.

In this realpolitik contest, a power struggle between the old order and a new one trying to emerge, Chávez had the benefit of economic resources in the form of rapidly rising commodity prices for oil. Oil revenues funded major social programs in health, education, and poverty reduction. Not only were the material conditions of the popular classes dramatically improved, but the Chávista political program instilled a persistent sense of social empowerment, especially among formerly excluded sectors of the population.

Meanwhile in the international arena, Chávez stimulated major initiatives for regional integration and cooperation in Latin America – UNASUR, CELAC, PetroCaribe, ALBA – providing institutions to resist US imperialism and to promote national development for its constituents.

Maduro Succession

Afflicted with terminal cancer, Hugo Chávez picked Nicolás Maduro as his successor to lead the Bolivarian Revolution. Chávez died on March 5, 2013. Maduro found himself thrust into a role that he had not sought, filling the shoes of a truly huge world historical figure. A special election was called, and on April 14th Maduro officially became the 65th president of Venezuela.

During his time in office, Chávez was constantly under siege from the right-wing opposition, factions within Chávismo, left Trotskyists and anarchists, as well as internationally from the US and its allies. Upon the succession, the unrelenting siege doubled down on Maduro.

Immediately after the official announcement of Maduro’s election victory, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles pronounced the election a “fraud” and called upon his followers to “show their rage.” What the right-wing opposition could not achieve through democratic elections, they have tried to achieve through extra-constitutional means. Violence has continued intermittently to the present, causing millions of dollars of damage to mostly public property such as health clinics and mass transportation as well as taking dozens of lives.

It came as no surprise to anyone that the opposition would refuse to recognize the election if their candidate lost and would use that as an excuse to foment violence to destabilize the Chávista government. I was in Caracas in the days leading up to the 2013 election and was told repeatedly by Chávistas that would happen.

The accusation of electoral fraud had no basis. Independent polls leading into the presidential election predicted a Maduro victory. Former US president Jimmy Carter pronounced the Venezuelan electoral system the best in the world (while criticizing electoral practices in the US). After the election, Capriles called for an investigation, and the investigation confirmed the election results.

But all this did not deter the US, which was not only helping to fund the right-wing opposition in Venezuela, but helping to organize it through its “democracy promotion” programs. The US also refused to recognize the Maduro presidency deliberately adding fuel to the violent protests in Venezuela.

Unfinished Revolution

It did not take any extraordinary prescience for me to write after Maduro assumed the Venezuelan presidency: “The problems of building 21st century socialism on a capitalist foundation include crime, inefficiency/shortages, and inflation/devaluation. These are the problems inherited from the existing capitalist order and exacerbated by the sabotage of the opposition. This is the time bomb that has been handed to Maduro.” Maduro inherited issues that had never been addressed or dealt with inconsistently, actual mistakes from the past, and other unfinished tasks.

Despite immense constraints, Maduro made initiatives that Chávez had yet to do. On currency control and subsidized gasoline prices – some argue too little too late – Maduro instituted reforms. On putting some teeth into curbing illegal activities of the opposition, the police and judiciary had Leopoldo Lopez arrested. Maduro also further promoted the communes, all the while seeing his role as continuing the Chávez legacy.

As Franco Vielma commented in 2014: “Expecting Maduro to eliminate corruption and bureaucrats with a stroke of the pen, is not only impossible but absurd. Expecting Maduro to not make missteps is equally so.”

End of the Oil Rentier Economy

In addition to an emboldened internal opposition sabotaging the Venezuelan economy and an aggressively hostile US, Maduro and by extension Venezuela has had to contend with an almost overwhelming external factor – the bottom fell out of the price of oil. Global oil prices slumped to low of $25 a barrel in January of this year. In the heyday of the boom, oil sold for $130 a barrel and petroleum accounted for about 93 percent of Venezuela’s exports.

As the Maduro government has recognized, the oil rentier economy is finished and Venezuela has to adjust. So, yes, Maduro has made mistakes; only those who don’t struggle avoid making mistakes. But the playing field for Maduro has been severely tilted to his disadvantage with domestic sabotage by an opposition funded in part by the US and then the collapse of the oil economy.

It is unlikely even Chávez would have done differently. Most of Maduro’s problems were inherited from Chávez who himself had not found solutions to, for example, endemic corruption and an entrenched, hostile bureaucracy. Nor did Chávez put sustained energy into diversifying Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy.

Solutions for Venezuela

The New York Times recently hosted a four-way debate on solutions for Venezuela. Neo-conservative Roger Noriega argued for recovery of “free market economic policies” entailing the neo-liberal overhauling of the state-run oil company, central bank and other government entities in Venezuela. While a US government official, Noriega co-authored the Helms-Burton law, tightening the illegal “embargo” (really a blockade) on Cuba, and was involved in the US-backed coup in Haiti in 2000. As a private lobbyist, Noriega worked on behalf of the 2009 US-backed coup in Honduras. Against such a track record, Noriega’s accusations that the Chávista project represents “undemocratic elements” ring hollow.

Harvard academic Ricardo Hausmann echoes the right-wing Venezuelan opposition and Noriega on the efficacy of turning the Venezuelan economy over to the IMF and the World Bank for a neo-liberal overhaul. Hausmann holds up the contemporary models of Greece and Ukraine (see “With friends like the IMF and EU, Ukraine doesn’t need enemies”) as the solution to Venezuela’s problems…without any sense of irony about the abysmal conditions in those two benighted countries suffering from outside interference. Hausmann, incidentally, was formerly an official in the corrupt Pérez administration in Venezuela.

On the other side of the Times debate, journalist Tamara Pearson and economist Mark Weisbrot, both sympathetic to the Venezuelan government, oppose imposition of neo-liberal austerity measures on the people of Venezuela under the auspices of the IMF and the World Bank.

Weisbrot comments, “A switch to a policy of non-intervention in Venezuela would be a sea change for Washington, and would set a healthy precedent.” Indeed, it is the Venezuelans themselves who will have to solve their own problems, some of which are serious and immediate. The responsibility of North Americans is to keep our governments from destabilizing and immiserating our neighbor to the south.

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Roger Harris will be observing the Venezuela presidential election on a delegation with Venezuela Analysis and the Intrepid News Fund.

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