Over the past six weeks, since the opposition lost the municipal elections, and then after the Christmas and New Year period that followed, things have gotten worse here. Prices have skyrocketed, with shops charging the black market exchange rate rather than the official one, despite most of them buying products at the official rate. The usual products are scarce (hard to find, if not impossible: milk, oil, sugar, margarine, cornmeal) and a few more have been added to the list: mayonnaise, and most soaps. Metronidazol, for common gastric infections has also become scarce. There are alternatives to Metronidozal, and the reality is you can wash most things with cheap shampoo; you don’t need all the different dish and clothes soaps and so on. Most people also have most of the scarce products like sugar and margarine stocked up at home. In some barrios gas, for cooking, has been harder to get. The economic reality is a little bit tough, but what is tougher is the psychological effect all of this has on people. That feeling of insecurity, of not being sure you will be able to get the product you need, or be able to afford it. This causes people to form huge queues when a product does arrive, which in turn deepens the psychological impact. At the same time, the black market rate – not at all based on the real value of the bolivar – continues to climb, and there’s a ‘what if’ if one’s head… what if they manage hyperinflation?
On top of this, we have the media constantly lying about what is going on here and about what the government does, as well as the verbal abuse towards Chavistas on social networks. Then, over the last few weeks, in some parts of Venezuela, the most violent sectors of the opposition have been active. Here in Merida it started off with a few “students” blocking the main road; burning tires and garbage on it, and throwing rocks at anyone who tried to get close. They had no placards. From last Friday those protests escalated, both in terms of violence, people involved, and roads closed. It has been hard to get to school, work, and the hospital, and the frustration, inconvenience, and fear that comes with these sorts of actions combines with the aforementioned economic insecurity. The cacerolas (pot banging protests) that started last night in my barrio and in a few others here and in other cities also cause anxiety.
Sometimes, the extent to which these sorts of war of attrition strategies affect people depends on where you live or work. Many workplaces, for example, have access to Mercal food products. Other barrios are much calmer, and other parts of the country are peaceful.
Now, the government has made mistakes, but purchasing power has basically continuously risen until mid last year, and inflation has also been around the 15-30% mark until mid last year. The worsening of above measures since then are clearly intentional, both for their political aims and the fact that they drastically increase the wealthy sector’s profits. They came at a time when, with Chavez gone, the revolution was perceived to be more vulnerable. They are destructive measures that aim to wear people down and for collective fear and anxiety; three solid ingredients for paving the way for conservative forces. The political opposition may have lost all except one election in the last fifteen years, but the economic opposition is in a stronger position. And the hard thing about that opposition is they are less visible, and also seemingly less divided than the political opposition.
One consequence of this three pronged attack (economic, media, and violence) on the Bolivarian revolution is that the national government has been forced to go on the defensive; constantly trying to counter the price speculation, the media attacks and so on. Though the government has also tried to get on with things; with science programs, housing, cultural programs, the street government, and so on, too much of its effort has had to go into trying to just stay above water. Maduro emphasised in his address tonight (13 February) the importance of ruling by law – fair enough – yet it is hard to imagine this Law of Prices and the 30% profit limit being enforced in the thousands of shops in each city. If the grassroots were more organised to defend our rights, perhaps we could.
Maduro also said, “The most important thing is to keep governing, to keep working”. Most movement activists, mission workers, and public sector workers have been doing just that, despite the climate. At the alternative school where I teach for example, we’ve had all sorts of activists over the last few weeks coming and wanting to do workshops, mural painting, and help out. A group started a rehabilitation program, and the state foundation for science and technology met with us and provided us with a worker for our computing and internet room. However, in this sort of climate it is still harder to deepen revolutionary organisation in the way that we’d like.
The question is how this will work out in the long term. While perhaps a few Chavistas, affected by the real drop in purchasing power, might tire and change sides, most people are firm in their convictions, with government supporters largely (but often with constructive criticism) believing the public press, and opposition supporters believing (and being manipulated by) the private media. It seems unlikely that the far right, violent sector of the opposition will achieve its goal of forcing Maduro to resign, yet it is also hard for the revolution to move forward. At worse, it could be seen as a kind of checkmate, and at best, a determined revolution that is being slowed down, but little by little is actually building the communes and worker run production units, and so on, that it would like. On the one hand, the level of organisation of the bases here is incredible, but organisations tend to work (very hard) in their own trinchera – trench, and there is a lack of real regional and national articulation between the bases. As we’ve seen in 2002/3, situations like this don’t have to make things worse, they can be the crisis that pushes grassroots and national politics to radicalise, however this lack of broader articulation makes that difficult, if not impossible.