Friday, 4 August 2017

Taking Sides On Venezuela

When there is a crisis overseas, you can tell a great deal about someone by how they react to it.

In this case I'd like to draw attention to sundry calls on Jeremy Corbyn to condemn what is happening in Venezuela.

Ever keen to pressure a leader they remain unreconciled to, Angela Smith and Graham Jones, ostensibly in their roles as members and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Venezuela, have added their voice to the gnashing of Tory MPs and hostile editorials.

Why they are on this APPG after showing scant interest in Latin American affairs during their careers is something I'll leave the reader to ponder. 

We know from the recent attacks on Jeremy Corbyn that the Tories, their press, and their helpers in the PLP have determined the best way to turn back the tide is to call his integrity into question.

See, for example, how Venezuela concern trolling and its attempts to associate repression with Jeremy is taken further by The Sun's claim the Labour leader faces "fresh questions" over his ties to the Nicolas Maduro regime.

What are these ties, exactly? We don't know because they do not elaborate, almost as if the truth doesn't matter.

When they have run out of political attacks, insinuation and smear is all that remains.

It just so happens Labour's statement is very clear, but that won't do.

Some will not be satisfied until Jeremy renounces his previous support for Hugo Chavez and performs the kind of public repentance none of his critics would be prepared to do themselves - or even ask of any other politician.

That isn't to say what is happening in Venezuela isn't worrying, it obviously is.

What we see is a pre-civil war situation in which the government and opposition are locked in a death spiral of struggle.

Trying to understand what is happening means putting into the bin hyperbolic claims of Maduro's "dictatorship" and coming to terms with what is happening as it unfolds - a project hypocritical Tories and our nominally Labour MPs are utterly uninterested in.

A good starting point would be familiarising oneself with large quantity of current affairs writing available in English, both from the pro-opposition and pro-Maduro camps.

As with all analysis, it's a good idea to situate recent political developments in the context of history which, in Venezuela in the post-war period was a history of coups and authoritarian government, and only restricted intervals of liberal democracy.

It means understanding what happened to the Venezuelan economy over the same time frame and asking who benefited from its decades-long oil boom.

We would need to look at the relationship between the present crisis and the onset of runaway inflation in 2014, the class character of the antagonists, and the role the interference of the United States has played in events.

We must also avoid the sort of myth-making leftist accounts of revolutions and civil wars are fond, of playing the epigone Maduro to the saviour Chavez.

Matters were better and circumstances different before Chavez's premature death, and while he enjoyed popular support and legitimacy this was in the context of a stronger economy and weaker opposition.

The precipitating factor for the current crisis was the 18 month-long collapse in oil prices, that saw the price fall from a high of $115/barrel to $35.

All oil-dependent economies took a big hit, Venezuela included.

However, the country's difficulties don't all result from this external shock: the economy had tipped into recession some six months prior. 

According to the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, inflation was turbo charged by the government's decision to tighten access to foreign exchange. 

As the dollar is a stable global reserve currency unlikely to be depreciated by inflationary pressures, the government inadvertently touched off a stampede for dollars which, in turn, caused inflation to spiral. 

The oil crisis further sapped government revenue, and so the money presses were set into motion, which only spurred inflation further. 

The problem is possible solutions, such an easing of currency exchange rules, are rejected by the government. 

As a result there have been widespread shortages, a return to arbitrage and barter, and a well-publicised scarcity of loo roll.

The opposition have made hay with this. 

They took to the streets in 2013 after Maduro narrowly won the presidential election, and have forced regular street confrontations with government forces ever since.

They never accepted the legitimacy of Chavismo, even when the economy was booming and their bank accounts fattened on the proceeds, and when hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs were created. 

The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is the catch-all anti-Chavista party comprising parties tied to the old elite - conservatives, liberals, and the centre left.

Interestingly also signed up is Bandera Roja, a farcical Maoist ex-guerrilla outfit for whom Chavez and his United Socialist Party were/are "social-fascists".

As an umbrella and with little policy to unite them, the MUD is entirely an anti-government force.

It has nothing to say about the economic crisis except things are bad mmmkay, and would have trouble coming up with a policy platform that could address it - which is why they don't bother.

A case of taking out Maduro first and worrying about the rest later is their organising principle.

Still, in 2015 they capitalised on the situation and won 112 seats out of 167 in the National Assembly elections, and have managed to leverage their super majority to try and paralyse the government. 

Maduro for his part acknowledged his defeat, but then announced the setting up of an alternative "communal" parliament ostensibly to draw together representatives from the grass roots communal movement.

Think of it as an attempt to formalise a situation of dual power, of bourgeois democracy vs soviet-style workers' councils.

The problem for Maduro was its being a transparently self-serving move and the fact the communal movement is nowhere near as numerous or powerful as the soviet movement was in the Russian revolution.

The fact it has only met once at Maduro's behest underlined its sham character and inability to circumvent the assembly.

This didn't stop government attempts to squash the assembly.

In March, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the formally separate judicial body akin to the US supreme court (but also stuffed with Maduro supporters) stripped the National Assembly of its powers and assumed its legislative functions.

And then, two days later, went back and reinstated its powers. The Assembly retaliated and began moving against the judges.

To head this off, in early May Maduro decreed the convention of a constituent assembly with far reaching powers, including those to rewrite Venezuela's constitution, modify term limits for the president and, entirely coincidentally, the power to dismiss parliament.

The election of assembly members was sorted by electoral districts and with reserved positions for occupations and other interest groups, like trade unions and indigenous peoples. 

This method also meant the MUD parties would have had a difficult time winning significant representation to it, and therefore boycotted the election. 

This undoubtedly helped keep the turnout low (the figure itself is disputed) and helps put questions of legitimacy over the whole process in the view of establishment international observers. That however is not the only reason.

Reports suggest government workers and employees in the state-owned enterprises were pressured to vote on pain of disciplinary measures or dismissal.

Herein lies the problem with what Venezuela's 'socialism in the 21st century' has become. 

The MUD-led opposition is wide but remains largely passive. The street battles seen on our TV screens are mostly small groups of activists from the wealthier neighbourhoods of Caracas.

They are representative of the elite interests arrayed against the government, but are not and have a very difficult time articulating the anger and frustration of the people at large. 

It's one thing to get huge numbers for A-to-B marches, but difficult to mobilise for active, militant confrontation. 

Despite the deepening sense of crisis and falling of living standards, significant numbers of poor Venezuelans prefer to leave over finding salvation in the opposition's arms.

And this presents a significant problem for Maduro and the PSUV too.

In 2002 Chavez was saved by the intervention of millions against the CIA-backed coup to remove him. 

Come 2017 those masses are missing. This says a lot about the drip, drip draining of legitimacy away from Maduro. 

Constitutional shenanigans explain some of it, but there is the deadening effect of his attempts to sort the economy out. 

As we have seen in Europe, governments turning against their constituents' interests is bad for both. 

The Chavismo programme of nationalisation has rolled back, experiments with special economic zones modelled on China's experience, worker participation has been halted and in some cases reversed, privileging debt payment over reinvestment, and, of course, feeding inflation by printing money rather than changing foreign currency policy have reduced swathes of their base to spectators. 

Were the mass enthusiastic and felt Maduro was their president leading their government, the opposition wouldn't even be in contention. 

But they don't and they are not actively defending the presidency - the crisis has left many fatigued, and the attitude the government has towards its people is almost Fabian in its outlook: the masses should vote and leave the building of Chavismo to the state. 

If socialism is something that is done to you or for you, don't be shocked if most people feel detached and alienated from the project.

Unfortunately the two likely outcomes do not look good.

The MUD might talk a good democracy and profess care for human rights, but the moment they come to power such niceties would evaporate.

The remnants of progressive policies are for rescinding and a neoliberal programme of privatisation and marketisation prepped as per Brazil and Argentina, and the only law respected being those governing property. 

Respect for free speech and assembly would be smashed under a crackdown on Chavez and Maduro supporters. 

The kinds of powers the Venezuelan government are using now are nothing compared to Latin American traditions of counterrevolutionary violence. 

Today's street protesters would be the witch-hunters, torturers and executioners of tomorrow.

If this happens I have a suspicion the people hand-wringing and using Venezuela for point scoring in the advanced countries would quickly file the country down the memory hole along with the other unpleasant regimes they don't give a monkey's about. 

Surely then we should stick up for Maduro's government as the imperfect guarantors of what exists

The problem overhanging an uncritical defence is the appalling history of self-described socialist governments restricting and abolishing democratic freedoms, often in the name of emergencies (real and imagined) and then becoming something that is the very antithesis of human liberation. 

Democracy in a leftist movement and therefore a leftist government isn't a nice add-on for after the time the nasty capitalists have been done away with.

It is necessary for the continued health and self-organisation of our class in the process of making a revolution. 

Chavismo is in danger because it has never allowed the masses to organise themselves, and appeals in this direction may be too late after all that has happened. 

And so a Maduro government is preferable to the opposition in much the same way, to pursue an idiot Newsnight question, Tony Blair was preferable to the Tories. 

But that doesn't mean we should be satisfied with, let alone apologise for Maduro's creeping authoritarianism.

If people are concerned they should find out what the critical-Chavista movement are saying and finding out about their own attempts to carry forward the revolution. It's with them our sympathies should ultimately lie.

It denigrates the seriousness of the Venezeulan crisis to bring the question back to Jeremy Corbyn and what he should and shouldn't say. 

The Labour statement is a good starting place and once he returns from his hols he should adopt a critical standpoint. 

This isn't to appease the press but to emphasise that socialism involves a deeper, more thoroughgoing democratisation of social life. 

After all, the indispensability of the latter to the former is the last thing our establishment would like to hear.

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