Venezuela faces a crisis. The “opposition,” including not only corporate owners, but also a great many professionals and some workers too, has legislative power and is hell bent on reversing Bolivarian gains by removing officials, reversing Bolivarian laws, passing new laws, and even writing a new constitution to replace the one the Bolivarian’s adopted. Maduro, however, is still President and intent on enlarging Bolivarian gains.
The Bolivarian project began with the executive office of President and massive public support. The opposition controlled huge swaths of the economy, media, most local government offices, local police, and so on.
Chavez (and then later Maduro) used the executive arm of government, backed and led by popular desires, to bend all manner of outcomes on behalf of the weak and poor including redistributing wealth, meeting health and education needs, and developing new structures of participation and local governance.
The opposition, in response, used ownership rights in diverse industries and particularly in the media, local government, and aid from abroad to sabotage and otherwise stymie Bolivarian efforts – including trying for a coup.
Sale of oil financed redistribution without taking all property from elites. But as the price of oil has plummeted, the government has entered difficult times, with the population suffering major dislocations.
Finally, an increasingly embattled and worn out public voted in the opposition by what was as much a vote against the status quo economic turmoil as a vote for opposition plans.
Another factor that deserves highlighting is corruption. Not corruption by corporate elites, which is a constant feature of market competition and capitalist profit seeking, and not corruption by random opportunists or gangs (abetted by police sabotage), but intense corruption perpetrated within the higher levels of Bolivarian government. (Corruption at lower levels of government employment is explained by the fact that government employees have incomes sufficient fro price controlled goods, but not for what isn’t price controlled such as evem modest clothes, electronics, etc. so low level corruption is more or less like taking a second job to survive, albeit with worse psychological effects.)
The usual explanation for corruption is greed plus opportunity. The greed is assumed present in everyone, everywhere. Opportunity brings it forth, and the opportunity, in Venezuela, is distorted exchange rates and commercial subsidies on behalf of the poor that make buying and selling on black markets, or buying in Venezuela and selling in neighboring countries, or turning the other cheek in return for bribes very profitable.
As to what else fed government corruption, especially at higher levels,more on that, in a moment.
So, from Chavez’s election to now there has been a constant opposition/Bolivarian struggle. The Bolivarian strategy was, as best I can discern, to hold off the opposition from blocking Bolivarian policy fully so as to make valuable changes for people, and by those changes to gain growing allegiance by winning ever more firmly the popular heart and mind.
And, indeed, the Bolivarian government did create all kinds of valuable projects from missions, to grass roots organs of power, to grass roots media, to changed rules of employment, and much more. And, indeed, the Bolivarians repeatedly won elections, though their winning margin, on average, failed to rise and even dropped due to opposition machinations.
Clarity about where the whole thing was going was absent from the outset. Markers to examine to determine advance or decline were absent. Celebrating election wins by ever declining margins as if only winning mattered was indicative.
The opposition had the weight of centuries of corporate history and ubiquitous imperial relations, plus the weight of its wealth and economic control and overseas support.
If you aren’t busy being born, you are busy dying, and, I suspect that that dynamic fed not only diminishing support but also growing corruption at least since Chavez’s death, and perhaps earlier too. As hope of attaining a fully liberated society began to diminish and fear that conditions might revert grew, ideas of self and family preservation entrenched. After all, if the whole project was not going to succeed, then in the mind of an average official, however committed that person was earlier, now the thought could arise, well, hell, I need to ensure my and my families’ future and I can not only do it easily, but, most important, I can do it without guilt because I am robbing a process that is not going to succeed anyway. This is stupendously sad, but perhaps not as ugly as the belief that everyone is a crook just waiting for a crowbar to steal with and a wall of invisibility to hide one’s actions behind.
Was the decline to recent conditions only about oil? No, here are three major mistakes or poor choices as well.
First, not having a clearly enunciated shared vision and not facing off with the opposition much earlier, before the opposition had time to use their assets to wear out the public and undermine Bolivarian support was self defeating. Why wasn’t there attention to vision like there was to literacy, say? Why wasn’t there a face off with old elites?
For the former – I don’t even have a good guess beyond feeling that such a shared vision was never arrived at, to share. For the latter, the reason was trying to avoid civil war. But the choice to avoid confrontation delayed the time of possible victory and during that lag, instead of the Bolivarians getting stronger and the opposition weaker, the reverse occurred.
Second, not trying sufficiently to solidify the Bolivarian base with knowledge and confidence about its agenda and, perhaps even more so, not trying to reach out enough to the opposition’s supporters to organize them into Bolivarian attitudes and commitments was also self defeating. Why wasn’t that done far more? Probably for the same reasons leftists in the U.S. avoid trying to reach out to Trump’s supporters. Discomfort. Fear of conflict. Lack of confidence about what to say and do. And, mainly, a lack of focus on the long run requirements of actually winning a new world as compared to focusing on only short run requirements of hanging on.
Third, not dealing effectively with the economy, in part by diversifying, but also, mainly, by solving issues associated with capitalist obstruction and perverse exchange rates was certainly a proximate cause of recent decline in support. Why wasn’t this corrected? Probably fear that such acts would provoke civil war or anger supporters in the short term, while not seeing the devastating impact long term – and, perhaps, pressure from diverse directions to not upset the lucrative benefits elites, including inside the government, got from the induced corruption.
And so we come to now. What should happen? My guess is there are going to be three broad views inside Venezuela on this.
First, some will say the population must be organized and aroused to fight not just to defend current conditions but to carry through the revolution’s aims far more fully. The difficulty for this is that the public doesn’t show much evidence of being willing to do it, spontaneously or fully, or perhaps even at all.
Second, some will say, okay, so the opposition has the legislature, we still have the executive. Hang on, use it effectively. Fight to regain mass support. The difficulty for this is, there is no mandate right now for much change and yet the current problems persisting for much longer will likely lead to a new president from the opposition eager to work with the new legislature leading to repression and reversal writ large. So this path depends on Maduro and loyalists in the government, plus the public, acting to right the economy, and then to push forward while battling the opposition. The difficulty for this is can Maduro, who has become a lightening rod for anger since the crises have gone uncorrected, inspire and be at the helm of such a struggle?
Third, a new presidential election is welcomed soon, a new president emerges with (one hopes) a very large Bolivarian base of support. Then the new executive, with a mandate rather than carrying blame for the past, undertakes to right the economy and push forward. Of course this has the huge risk of losing a special early presidential election but this risk factor is a bit like for the whole prior Bolivarian history in that putting off a new presidential election could weaken the prospect of winning it ever, just as putting off more intense open conflict with the opposition for many years weakened the prospects for winning that.
From outside, we can at most guess which of these paths, suitably refined and improved, has the best prospects of success. In any event, however, we can work to ensure that the future of Venezuela is in Venezuelan hands.