In the wake of Venezuela’s successful election this summer, and with the Chavista movement having clear momentum headed into the October 15th regional elections, the U.S. government is turning the screws on the Bolivarian government of Venezuela. Donald Trump affirmed the sanctions leveled on Venezuela in August by making the country the centerpiece of a diatribe against socialism in his September speech to the UN General Assembly.
Canada has also recently announced similar sanctions and Trump used a visit by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to call on the EU to level sanctions as well. The backdrop to these actions is the foundering of the strategy of the opposition and their imperialist backers.
While Venezuela faces serious challenges, the opposition overstated its own popularity and failed to leverage violent street protests into a broader “regime change” operation. In the process they energized the Chavista-base behind the Constituent Assembly as an opportunity for the Bolivarian revolution to again take the initiative and deepen its radical character.
Now, although challenges continue, Venezuela faces the possibility of consolidating the Bolivarian movement and turning the opposition into a purely extra-parliamentary phenomenon. Without opposition access to juridical levers of power, the Venezuelan revolution becomes much harder to overthrow without an outright coup or war, strengthening the hand of revolutionary forces.
The Constituent Assembly and the Crisis
The Assembly, officially Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, began its work with political and institutional matters. Venezuela had been in gridlock. The opposition-controlled National Assembly has been in a dispute with the Supreme Court and has been unwilling to pass any legislation from the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) yet unable to override President Maduro’s veto with their own bills.
The Constituent Assembly was already tasked with rewriting the constitution but also had the powers to oversee the other branches of government. The National Assembly refused to even appear at a meeting about coordination between the two bodies. The Constituent Assembly quickly then gave itself specific legislative powers. The National Assembly is not technically dissolved, but exists in limbo since opposition legislators refuse to recognize the Presidency, Supreme Court, and Constitutional Assembly.
The Constituent Assembly’s action allowed governing to resume, breaking the deadlock. The Constituent Assembly also quickly removed Attorney General Luisa Ortega who had unsuccessfully sought to discredit the Constituent Assembly election and had come under fire for failing to prosecute the perpetrators of brutal opposition violence.
This effectively stabilized the government, and laid the foundation for the more specific work of the Assembly, dealing with the deep economic crisis the country has sunk into, and dealing more directly with the political issues as it regards the transition to socialism.
In early September, President Maduro set the stage for this debate announcing eight laws and measures designed to break the economic deadlock. This announcement was essentially a setting of the stage, outlining direct measures the government was taking, and raising issues related to the direction which the Constituent Assembly will take in terms of solidifying, constitutionally, how to continue to move forward to a socialist economy.
All sectors of the Chavista coalition, rhetorically at least, are of one mind. They assert that only by deepening the socialist project can Venezuela totally break out of its crisis phase. Among their distinct challenges, the principal issue is that of low oil prices and the dependence on oil as the central economic driver. The other principal issue is that the economy, oriented heavily towards imports and distribution, is almost totally controlled by private corporations, as is most domestic commodity and food production. A third pivotal issue is currency inflation and corruption.
Maduro’s recently announced actions are responses to those challenges. Some were relatively standard measures, including maintaining price controls on a number of key goods, a minimum wage increase that will principally benefit state workers to keep up with inflation, improved collection of taxes on the rich and also increasing state currency exchange houses to try to crack down on underground market prices.
Several measures, however, were more far-reaching.
One major announcement was related to the government program that works to deliver subsidized food and household products to millions of people once a month to address the issue of shortages (called CLAP). Maduro is expanding the program so the 6 million people receiving CLAP boxes once a month will now get two per month. In the same vein, Maduro announced a proposal to create a system of popular prosecutors who, along with a public prosecutor, will be able to act against price speculation and the black market on the spot.
As the Corriente Revolucionaria Bolivar y Zamora (CRBZ), a socialist current inside the PSUV, puts it: “Without the protagonism of the people there will be no resolution of the problem of price speculation.” Rather than relying purely on bureaucratic and technical means, these measures turn the fight against price speculation into a mass movement, and gives the masses of people the power to strike directly against those who prioritize personal profit over the needs of the majority of people.
Further, President Maduro announced new measures to promote foreign investment, efforts to deepen mineral extraction in the Orinoco Mineral belt, and an effort to use a basket of currencies in international payments, in particular the yuan, China’s currency.
Maduro also notably announced efforts to renegotiate international debt, in particular with Western banks.
Building the Commune, confronting challenges
Venezuela, has a dynamic matrix of democratic practice that has developed over the Bolivarian period. Of course there are the numerous elections won by the Bolivarian forces over the years.
Venezuela has also established a massive network of communal councils and communes at the local and regional level. These organs of participatory democracy have been building themselves up as a part of the broader Bolivarian project, trying to develop more cooperative, that is socialist, ways of governing society. There are roughly 46,000 registered communal councils and roughly 1,600 communes.
In his book Building the Commune author George Ciccariello-Maher gives a flavor of this process:
“Sometimes a commune is sixty women gathered in a room to debate local road construction, berating political leaders in the harshest of terms. Other times it’s a textile collective gathering with local residents to decide what the community needs and how best to produce it. Sometimes it’s a handful of young men on motorcycles hammering out a gang truce, or others broadcasting on a collective radio or TV station. Often it’s hundreds of rural families growing plantains, cacao, coffee or corn while attempting to rebuild their ancestral dignity on the land through a new, collective form.”
An essential question, then, has been how to combine these various levels of democratic participation into an integrated set of institutions for people’s power.
As Venezuela’s socialists try and move forward to alleviate the current crisis, they are taking up the twin tasks of how to break free of the rentier-oil and import-based economy, and also to deepen democratic control over production and distribution of goods. The reality that a significant amount of private production and imports are controlled by private corporations hostile to the government, alongside entrenched networks of corruption and a vast black market remains operative, magnify the overall economic challenges. Furthermore, the United States government is aggressively trying to intensify the economic war and isolate Venezuela.
Nor can the effort for a more “balanced” economy be separated from the social priorities of the Venezuelan government. Venezuela, more than any other country has strived to make real the right to housing, education, healthcare and more. It is a social justice-oriented economy aimed at sharing the broad wealth of the nation. Against this backdrop, the current economic crisis isn’t so much a backslide, but a sharp break in a steadily increasing standard of living. Yet the Bolivarian leadership remains committed to these same priorities. Just recently a major new neonatal health project was unveiled to provide every pregnant woman with more significant health care and assistance at home during their pregnancies.
Continuing to allow people to have significant social rights is the underlying principle of the government and the overall Bolivarian process. In the context of the world imperialist economy that means access to technology, materials and resources that come from somewhere else. In other words, economies seeking to break out of their historic dependency need foreign exchange or something to barter. For most developing nations, this means they have to leverage their natural resources.
Venezuela has a deep, rich mining belt in the Orinoco which is awash (or abundant) with many minerals besides oil. The government currently is seeking to exploit that mineral wealth, opening it up for foreign investment, and creating special economic zones to attract said investment. Further, the state has set itself to the task of developing a nationally coordinated process of agricultural production and distribution to reduce imports, a project going by the name AgroSur.
The socialist path
It’s easy enough to say that Venezuela’s institutions of popular power and its emphasis on providing social rights have to unite for the process to continue to radicalize. But how? It’s clear that considerable mineral extraction is necessary, but how much is too much? What should be the rules governing these processes? What is in fact a decent life? In other words, what balance of development and sustainability should a society based on social justice and people’s power have? There are many thorny questions for the Constituent Assembly to consider as it establishes a draft constitution.
Socialism means the workers, as a class, have control of production and distribution, to plan for and provide the things people need to live. How to do that is a much more profound democratic process than the limited one-citizen, one-vote form of Western-style “democracy.”
The Bolivarian process dreams of much more than that. The announcement of a CLAP distribution process accompanied by public prosecutors empowers people to investigate and take action themselves, on the spot. This is in strict contrast, conceptually, to the past when people were confined to file complaints with an official or representative about shortages, and black market extortion prices. Venezuela’s communal process has opened up a much broader process of democratization, ranging from informal agreements within communities, to collective management of workplaces, to much more formal levels of collective governance over whole communities.
Revolutionary currents inside the PSUV and in the broader Great Patriotic Pole are all emphasizing this shift.
For instance, there are essentially three national legislative bodies at this point. The dormant opposition-controlled National Assembly, the Constituent Assembly which now has broad legislative powers, and the National Communal Parliament-Presidential Council for People’s Government of Communes.
Most revolutionary forces seem to feel the dormant National Assembly should become defunct and a new national legislative body, one explicitly based on “popular power” be established. Some — like the aforementioned CRBZ — are arguing simply for giving total legislative power to the Constituent Assembly, and to more fully open up the Constituent Assembly process to public debate at the base. This is a process many constituents are already doing, convening meetings to discuss and debate the process and proposals.
Others, like the Communist Party (PCV), stress the need for an entirely new body to incorporate the popular sectors to the exclusion of many of the capitalist interests that for varying reasons support the Great Patriotic Pole, and who often hide under socialist rhetoric.
How to integrate the communes is also a complex process. There are 24 Constituent Assembly members specifically representing the Communes although many from other sectors like the peasant sector, and individually elected constituents are involved in the communal process. Demands from the communal sector are multi-faceted. One major issues is the integration of the presidential council with the ministries themselves. This translates into, involving the communal sector directly in the development of government plans and dedicating a percentage of the GDP to the communal sector.
The latter is key because it requires more direct, conscious economic and social planning, attaching a partially autonomous socialist sector to the broader economy. On the one hand, this opens up broad new possibilities and experiments in furthering collective control over production and distribution. For example, there is a pending proposal about the communes forming and controlling national transport corporations.
On the other hand, how would this fit into with the governmental efforts to manage the communal sector and the special economic zones? What are the appropriate institutions, rights, responsibilities and duties of the two interrelated, but not totally harmonized manifestations of popular power, the electoral form and the communal form? These too are the types of questions sure to be hotly debated in the Constituent Assembly, and will not be resolved with simplistic formulas.
The other issue revolutionary forces of all stripes are uniting around is a clearer articulation of the role and power of the popular militias. This includes more direct involvement by the communal structures in the defense of national sovereignty. The defense of socialist institutions from reactionaries is also part of this initiative.
What was most notable then about President Maduro’s economic speech was that it trends towards the same measures championed by the revolutionary Bolivarian forces. The CLAP-related measures spoke to the need to empower people collectively at all levels of the process. It began the discussion on reducing imports, in particular food and establishing more self-reliance. It also continued to stress the need for progressive taxation and a more balanced base for sustainable development. The mobilization of the popular militia in a day of exercises and the renewal of the Great Patriotic Pole alliance, despite some serious disagreements, all point in one direction: towards the socialist path.
Even those revolutionary currents that want Maduro to go even further recognize steps in their direction. In the context of a period of large mass mobilizations at the base, this is a confirmation from the top that the Chavista movement wants to push in a more radical direction. How far that goes will turn on the axis of how the difficult issues above are resolved.
The Imperialist Context
These issues, challenging in their own right, are obviously much more challenging in the context of a worldwide Imperialist offensive, led by the United States. The U.S., regardless of who is the aggressor in chief, hates socialism and is aggressively trying to sabotage the Bolivarian process. As we have seen over the years, nothing is more dangerous to imperialism than living examples that the masses of people, as opposed to a tiny ruling elite, can control their own lives collectively, i.e. democratically (with a small “d”).
The Maduro government, has, remained vigilant on this front as well. The most notable shot has been around currency issues. The world economy is dominated by dollar-denominated trade. The use of the U.S. dollar as essentially a global currency gives the United State tremendous power. If for instance, most nations have to pay their debts in dollars, they then, of course, need dollars. This gives U.S. monetary policy coercive power and influence on other nations. A vast majority of traders and investors demand to be paid in dollars. Barter or payment in other currencies limits what an “outcast” nation can buy since it has to convert anything, goods or hard currency, into dollars first, which may drastically reduce what they are able to buy or bring in.
Breaking the monopoly of the dollar, then, is almost certainly a prerequisite for a more multi-polar world. Venezuela, as a country with vast mineral wealth, is now attempting to crack that monopoly. Being a major mineral hub gives Venezuela leverage to trade many things via a basket of currencies. It represents enough market share, or potential market share, in areas like oil to increase the importance to many nations of holding slightly fewer dollars, and slightly more Yuan, Rubles and Euros. This dynamic will potentially make those currencies more attractive to trade in. It also decreases the relative value of foreign investment in U.S. assets. This may weaken U.S. ability to manipulate and dominate the global economy, curtailing their ability to punish countries for their political, social and economic choices which diverge from Washington’s wishes.
President Maduro is also continuing a core policy of President Chavez, actively seeking to expand cooperation with more countries around the world. For a country that had been narrowly oriented towards economic dependency on its large northern neighbor, opening up to countries like Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Belarus and Turkey strengthens its sovereignty.
The Bolivarian government also seems to be moving much more decisively against corruption, rounding up larger numbers of corruptions rings across almost the entire government and many in the private sector as well. The Bolivarian government has also started to create incentives, like lower value-added taxes on electronic transactions, to encourage digital transactions. It is also expanding the role of the national ID card to combat black market thefts.
The black market and corrupt networks are one of the principal enemies of any positive gain, and are breeding grounds for the worst kind of capitalist impulses. It is this corruption that has introduced a big gap between many revolutionary pronouncements and actual implementation, so the need to defeat this scourge is clear.
Here again, it seems the government is moving in the direction of the proposals it has received from its left-wing base.
The constituent process has clearly rallied the Chavista base, and renewed the forward momentum of a revolution that has lifted millions out of poverty and given tens of millions the first steps into a participatory future. Masses of people have much more concrete control of their own lives and can take action to improve their living standards. By consolidating and institutionalizing their gains, they are freeing themselves of capricious whims of Western-style electoral system, in which compromised leaders could roll back progress when it became inconvenient.
Before concluding, we must interject a note of caution. It is clear the opposition is not going away. The upcoming elections on October 15th for state governors appear like they will be another win at the ballot box for Chavismo. It is also clear this may be exactly what a large section of the opposition actually prefers. If, as many predict, the vast majority if not all, governorships go to members of the Great Patriotic Pole, opposition propaganda will double down in its cries of “dictatorship.” Their argument, as is that of the Imperialists, is that the Constituent Process is illegitimate, and also that the Maduro regime is illegitimate, despite the clear democratic mandate behind both.
If they can now claim to be shut out of all official levels of power — given the dormant National Assembly which refused to continue to operate once the Constituent Assembly was installed — this will give them cover to return to the violent street demonstrations which failed to shake the government before. The ultimate goal of these demonstrations is of course a coup.
The Chavista leadership and masses know very well that Western-media will ignore every example of democratic practice they undertake. They will call Venezuela a dictatorial one-party state. So while the Constituent Assembly process, and most likely the October 15th elections fundamentally are a strengthening of the process, and a further move to the left, it also will serve to sharpen the level of clashes with Imperialism. This increases the possibility for more rounds of punishing sanctions in addition to foreign-backed coups.
For revolutionaries around the world then, the tasks could not be clearer. A people decided in 1998 to break decisively with neo-liberal capitalism, and to share their wealth more equally. They also decided to institutionalize and expand massively efforts at communal, popular power. In that time living standards have increased, poverty has decreased, healthcare, education and housing are formally rights and policy is aimed at achieving that. Indigenous communities and Afro-Venezuelans have been empowered to reclaim their culture and heritage and push back against the legacies of genocide and slavery. In effect, Venezuela has relaunched a worldwide discussion on socialism, what the next round of attempts to build socialism can and should look like, and what they can borrow from the past and must invent for the future.
If the Bolivarian movement is derailed, or overthrown, all that goes away. The cause of people being able to collectively decide how to best use their resources and talents for their own benefits will be irreparably set-back. There are challenges and contradictions to discuss for sure, but first and foremost the Bolivarian revolution must be defended.