An Anti-Imperialist Beginners Guide to Venezuela
As the conflict in Venezuela develops, it is important for US leftists of various stripes to have a solid understanding of the context and stakes in this struggle. Western media, even sources considered “left-leaning” or especially fair are wildly biased on this topic, presenting a picture of Venezuela reminiscent of how right wing talk radio portrayed Obama or how Rachel Maddow talks about Trump — only worse.
The Austin Revolutionary Organizing Collective (AROC) unreservedly opposes all aspects of US imperialism, and we want to help rectify the confusion imperialist media have sown by giving you an independent outline of the situation and its history.
Note that we are hardly subject matter experts on Venezuela, and there are likely details which escape us. We will not speak on aspects of the struggle which we have not investigated. AROC cadre have nonetheless observed Venezuela and its politics as interested revolutionaries for many years now and wish to share our understanding with you.
Our goal is that you may deepen your understanding of imperialism, see through the lies being used to perpetuate a terrible crime, and come to solidarity with the people of Venezuela through revolutionary organizing here in the United States.
Contents: The Present Situation in Venezuela | Opposition Efforts to Delegitimize Venezuelan Democracy | But What About the Unrest? | Economic Warfare Part 1: Manufactured Shortages | Economic Warfare Part 2: International Financial Boycott | Imperialism, Financial Power, and the Bolivarian Movement | Economic Warfare Part 3: US Dollar Imperialism | Economic Warfare Part 4: Black Market Currency Manipulation | Venezuela and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat | The Centrality of the Masses |Armed Struggle and Civil War |What We Can Do | Conclusion
The Present Situation in Venezuela
This is a rapidly developing situation, and so new, important events will probably come to overshadow the beginnings. That said, the fundamental crisis right now is that the National Assembly — essentially Venezuela’s congress — is refusing to recognize the reelection of President Nicolas Maduro and have instead sworn in the president of their body — Juan Guaido, an obscure figure who 81% of Venezuelans had never heard of — as president. The United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the UK, and some other imperialist and right wing governments have recognized him now as the official president of Venezuela.
Note that Guaido is not a losing presidential candidate or popular political figure. He is the recently elected head of the National Assembly, and his coalition of parties boycotted the recent presidential election.
Venezuela’s National Assembly is controlled by the opposition, which would not be possible in an actual dictatorship. There have been attempts by Maduro to end run the legislature in order to pursue his agenda, but this is true of presidents, governors, mayors, and other politicians everywhere. Maduro was re-elected in 2018 in an election with 46% voter turnout, receiving about 68% of the vote. This turnout was historically low for Venezuela, likely due not only to the opposition boycott, but also the growing number of Chavismo-supporting voters frustrated by Maduro’s hesitancy in the midst of the crisis.
Opposition Efforts to Delegitimize Venezuelan Democracy
The opposition parties have boycotted every Venezuelan elections since their 2015 National Assembly victory*, even when they might have won them. They claim that the votes are somehow rigged, but past elections have been subject to international monitoring that found them some of the fairest in the world.
*(A Venezuelan comrade wrote to correct us — the opposition contested the 2017 gubernatorial elections, winning in 5 states and losing in 18. Again, under the “dictatorship” the opposition party wins elections. The opposition did especially poorly in municipalities — likely because of the violent protests they had led there that same year — prompting the parties to boycott the mayoral elections later that year. Venezuela, like almost every US state, requires parties to register every election unless they received a certain number of votes in the previous election. By boycotting the opposition parties had to re-apply for inclusion in the 2018 election, a requirement the imperialist media reported as “banning” them from the race, which they subsequently boycotted.)
During the 2018 vote, however, the Venezuelan opposition asked the UN to NOT send monitors, and while the EU sent some and reported fraud and unfairness, a group of the EU observers** wrote a dissenting report to indicate that the official statement ran contrary to their observations — they noted that the system was “fraud-proof.” A coalition of labor unions, NGOs, journalists, and church leaders from Canada observed the elections and reported “we witnessed a transparent, secure, democratic and orderly electoral and voting process.”
**This was an error on our part — the dissenting observers addressed their letter to the EU but were not themselves part of the EU delegation.
Still, the very fact that opposition parties do not participate — voluntarily — is used as evidence in the Western media that the elections are “rigged,” and this is precisely why these parties boycott the elections. They refuse to participate in elections they might actually win because they want to delegitimize the entire constitutional order. Now they have finally pushed this strategy to the point of a US-backed coup.
But What About the Unrest?
The election results nonetheless indicate discontent among the Venezuelan people, which is to be expected after several years of political and economic crisis. Many US observers have noted that people in Venezuela are starving and violent protests have rocked the country periodically for years, most notably with large demonstrations this week. This is used as a justification for the coup.
First things first, we need to recognize that while US media typically covers large anti-Maduro protests, they often fail to mention competing pro-regime protests which are often many times larger. This week when thousands took to the street to protest the government, tens of thousands rallied in Caracas in a display of solidarity with the government. This is despite widespread frustration with Maduro’s delay in advancing the “revolution” there.
Anti-government protests are typically filled with young university students from middle class and upper class backgrounds, led by right wing political formations. These groups have been known to engage in mercenary-led attacks on poor neighborhoods loyal to the Chavista movement (reported in the last few days), and to lynch people that “look like Chavistas” — typically black or dark-skinned people. These groups are also in many instances funded by the US government. The State Department set up an “Office of Transition” which collaborated with the National Endowment for Democracy — long involved in CIA operations — with $100 million for the Venezuelan opposition.
None of this is reported in the Western media, who cover the demonstrations without noting their political character or the types of people taking part in them. They instead characterize them as food riots, and the implication many are working with now is that the Maduro government is starving its people, prompting an uprising.
Economic Warfare Part 1: Manufactured Shortages
What exactly did Maduro do to starve his people and why would any president do such a thing? People will answer with vague responses about socialism and its failures, but the fact is that there is nothing “socialist” about Venezuela’s food supply and market for other basic necessities. Venezuela’s decades of servitude to US business interests prior to Chavez’s election in 1998 meant that the country served only as a point of oil export, a monoculture with little investment in food or consumer product manufacturing. Venezuela has been dependent on imports ever since, and the vast majority of imports and subsequent distribution are controlled by large private companies.
These companies despise Maduro and the Bolivarian “Revolution,” and there is strong evidence that they have engaged in hoarding and export smuggling in order to cause shortages. Venezuelan economist Pasqualina Curcio demonstrates in her 2016 book The Visible Hand of the Market: Economic Warfare in Venezuela that shortages have spiked even in periods with reported increases in imports and production. That is to say that more food is being produced domestically and more is being brought into the country, and yet less food is available.
Furthermore, shortages never seem to affect upper class luxuries, and businesses seem fine even while the public suffers. One example Curcio gives is when flour disappeared from stores while commercial bakeries never slowed down. The government has uncovered large caches of food and basic supplies in privately-owned warehouses, and they have arrested hundreds of smugglers taking food into Colombia. This is not a failure of socialism: it is a successful capitalist plot.
Economic Warfare Part 2: International Financial Boycott
The other aspect of the economic crisis has been rampant hyperinflation. This is a more complex phenomenon. At its heart is a concerted financial boycott against Venezuela by large international banks, creating a situation akin to getting evicted for nonpayment when your landlord refused to take your rent check.
Virtually all of Venezuela’s foreign debt is denominated in US dollars, which means that they have to convert domestic currency to US dollars to pay their debts. Oil sales also generate dollars, but the price of oil has cratered in recent years, in part as a result of political action by Saudi Arabia to help undermine Venezuela in particular. The 1980s oil bust likewise created a crisis in Venezuela under a US-backed government.
Still, Venezuela had managed to make all of its debt repayments. Then in 2016 Citibank unilaterally closed “correspondence accounts” with Venezuela’s central bank. Correspondence accounts are accounts held by one bank at another bank, and in this case it was the account used for US dollar transactions. This forced Venezuela to try and do its international business in the Chinese renminbi or euros or other currencies, imposing huge new friction into their financial system and adding significant transaction costs.
That same summer a major Portuguese bank associated with that country’s central bank said that it was impossible for them to do US dollar transactions with Venezuelan institutions because of political pressures by its own correspondent institutions in the United States. In 2017 the payment agent for bonds from the state oil company — that is to say the bank that actually executes the bond payments — said that their correspondent institution, PNC bank, would not process Venezuelan payments, making it impossible for the government to honor those debts.
The global financial system had blackballed Venezuela and unable to get the currency they needed to pay their debts they defaulted — crashing the value of their sovereign currency — again not because socialism, but because capitalism.
Imperialism, Financial Power, and the Bolivarian Movement
It’s important to note here that as Marxists we understand imperialism to not be simply a system of international meddling, but an inevitable stage of capitalist development where production has become concentrated into the hands a small number of huge international monopolies or near-monopolies in turn owned by a tiny number of very large financial institutions. As they accumulate more capital than they can profitably invest in the developed capitalist economies they begin to export their capital to other countries, typically poorer countries with weak political institutions.
Nowadays imperialism is rarely imposed through direct colonization like Great Britain did in India, for example. Instead of a repressive form of imperialism, they use hegemony — civil institutions convince subjects to go along with the system without immediate violence or its explicit threat. For international capitalism the most important of these institutions are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which put exploited countries into debt and set onerous terms for repayment, compelling continued subordination to the First World imperialist countries.
Venezuela was one of the most vocal opponents of this system, beginning with the deadly Caracazo protests against neoliberal reforms imposed by the IMF in 1989. Slum-dwellers stormed wealthy neighborhoods and commercial districts to riot and loot before state forces killed thousands of demonstrators. The riots led Hugo Chavez — then a military officer — and his co-conspirators to accelerate planning for a military-led insurrection which they attempted in 1992. That attempt failed, but his opposition to the neoliberal reforms and explicit anti-imperialism inspired mass support, leading to his pardon in 1994 and his election in 1998.
His contempt for the main institutions of imperial hegemony and his attempt to help other countries develop their capacity to resist them too prompted the intense imperialist hostility culminating right now. Even Maduro’s confused attempts to placate imperialist creditors were not enough to keep them at bay.
Economic Warfare Part 3: US Dollar Imperialism
The US government followed up the unofficial financial boycott with extensive sanctions in the summer of 2017. US financial sanctions work by freezing all access by a country or its leaders to any US financial institution. It also bars these institutions from accepting any money from other actors doing business with these countries, which essentially means that the lion’s share of the global financial system — especially access to US dollars — is cut off from the sanction targets.
This power extends beyond typical US allies. The People’s Republic of China has had friendly relations with Venezuela, but in August 2017 their central bank announced that financial sanctions meant they could no longer do currency transactions with Venezuela. The same month Russia — a strong ally of the Bolivarian Republic — likewise announced that they could not help them. Essentially there is no way to convert Venezuela’s money — bolivars — to US dollars, which means that it is essentially worthless on the world stage, the base of the financial system. Hyperinflation is inevitable as a result.
Economic Warfare Part 4: Black Market Currency Manipulation
But hadn’t hyperinflation already begun in Venezuela? This is where we come back to the internal economic warfare against the people of Venezuela. Inflation there has been measured in the millions of percentage points in recent years, prompting observers to assume the government has “printed money.” Yet even while their currency became entirely worthless, liquidity rose at rates much lower than those expected to cause such inflation. It was hardly “printing money,” and cannot explain what Venezuela is experiencing.
The problem is that black market currency exchangers ignored these factors and would only trade bolivars at outrageously inflated rates. Notably the same importers and distributors responsible for hoarding food and supplies then only sell their products domestically at the black market exchange rate, not the official rate. One of the main sources of this unofficial but ruling exchange rate was a website that also peddled right wing news and conspiracy theories — it’s as if Breitbart.com got to control our monetary system.
These black market exchangers are the class allies of the corporate interests in Venezuela, who in turn use their manipulated rates to debase the currency.
Venezuela and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
The Maduro government did not invite any of these problems, and has admittedly responded to them with many ill-advised policies that have in turn amplified the problems. Yet the most significant mistake the regime has made has not been a commitment to socialism or imposition of a dictatorship, but rather an absence of thoroughgoing socialism by the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat.
The dictatorship of the proletariat is not a dictatorship of a single individual strongman; it is the absolute rule by a class over all repressive and hegemonic institutions of a society. The United States is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie — there is absolute and uncontested control of every single government institution within this country by the bourgeoisie. There are no meaningful civil institutions not subordinated to the agenda of the bourgeoisie, and every time one emerges — think Occupy, the Black Panther Party, the Communist Party of the 1920s and 1930s, the IWW, etc. — the bourgeois dictatorship shows its face and crushes it by any means necessary.
Successful socialist states crushed their local bourgeoisie as a class. Classes aren’t primarily made up of people, they are made up of the relations between those people: who owns what and who works for whom. Destroying the bourgeoisie as a class means undoing these relations, typically by seizing their property, breaking up their political institutions, suppressing their civil society, and punishing their attempts to restore their unjust rule. It also usually means expecting them to work for a living, just like everyone else.
In many instances the bourgeois elements of these countries refused to go to work and did not want to submit to the political leadership of the people they once exploited and so they left their countries altogether, a mass exodus that was welcomed by the socialist states. Venezuela never did this, and while millions of exiles have fled the country, these disproportionately wealthy, white Venezuelans were not fleeing a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, but the consequences of the sabotage their own class vanguard imposed on the Bolivarian state.
The Centrality of the Masses
Despite this failure, the Chavista movement has sought to cultivate mass politics, much to the chagrin of the ruling class forces set against them. One of the movement’s unique characteristics has been the initiation of consejos comunales, communal councils. These bodies exist at the level of small towns or even neighborhoods, funded by the central government and empowered to democratically decide what to do with the money. They may choose to build schools, infrastructure projects, medical clinics or other projects that meet their needs. As of today, there are tens of thousands in operation.
It is important to note that these communes were created by the masses themselves, and only recognized and afforded institutional support by Chavez in 2006. By Maduro’s own admission, these organs of popular power have been developed only “half-heartedly.” They have authority to fund projects, but no control over how much funding they get and the scope of their authority is limited by the continued existence of the old capitalist state that takes such authority for itself.
Rectifying this and giving these communes more formal powers under the constitution was a key priority of the 2017 Constituent Assembly campaign, but Western media universally reported this as a “power grab” by Maduro. It was an advance of the Bolivarian experiment, which the imperialist press cannot conceive of as anything other than a cynical plot. Now this advance in democracy — limited, it is true, by the half-measures of a regime still subordinate to the bourgeoisie — is being used as a justification for US aggression.
Why? Because the masses make history — not politicians or imperialist warlords — and even with its limitations and failings Venezuela adopted a model that threatens to empower the masses in new and progressive ways.
Armed Struggle and Civil War
The Bolivarian Movement backed up their mass politics with armed force. Chavismo actually began in the military and has given special privileges and benefits to the military during its rule. This is likely why there has been unanimity among top military leadership in support of Maduro during the present crisis. Furthermore, Chavez and later Maduro actively promoted militia formation in “popular” communities — low income, peasant and working class areas (though the political development of these militias has been inadequate).
The CIA and reactionary elements in Venezuela attempted a coup in 2002 which lasted less than three days because of mass uprisings, including armed struggle against coup-aligned security forces. Now the coup forces have invested a great deal more energy and time in destabilizing and delegitimizing the state beforehand. Nonetheless, there is likely to be bloody conflict on the ground, and with the military loyal to the state it seems the only chance for securing Guaido’s rule will be through foreign military intervention, assuming Maduro does not capitulate.
The appointment of the monster Elliott Abrams as special US envoy to this conflict, along with the surfeit of right wing paramilitaries and former soldiers in Colombia following the recent end of war there raises the specter of Contra-style death squad operations a la Central America in the 1980s.
The United States has also recently demonstrated in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria that it is perfectly comfortable providing air, drone, special forces, and intelligence support for reactionary ground forces in civil wars where governments refuse to heel. Just like in the Middle East, the US aggression against Venezuela is being done in the name of “democracy” and “human rights.” We anticipate that the humanitarian costs could be comparable to those in the Middle East as well if the state continues to resist the coup.
What We Can Do
Unfortunately, there is little that US revolutionaries can do to stop this assault. We need to build an anti-imperialist political core capable of organizing and defending independent proletarian institutions in this country. Those institutions in turn can establish a communist party capable of contesting for power, and a revolutionary struggle will bring US imperialism to an end.
We anticipate victory in this struggle being nearly impossible without major advances against US imperialism in the periphery weakening the economic and political base of the US state’s power. This is why solidarity with all efforts to roll back US imperialism is so important.
One crucial aspect to that solidarity is to refuse to repeat imperialist lines against these regimes or to undermine their legitimacy through unnecessary criticism. Just like we wouldn’t cross a picket line for a union that endorsed crappy politicians, we will not engage in gratuitous critique of governments resisting US imperialism. We don’t have to like or approve of these regimes to recognize the importance of their struggle against US rule.
We live in the United States, home to the world’s most repressive, most violent, most dangerous, embarrassing, corrupt, and exploitative government. We will reserve our criticism for it and trust our comrades in other countries to deal with their own immediate conditions.
Despite any errors they may have made, Venezuela has demonstrated the courage to stand up against the US bully, taking on a superpower and its worldwide accomplices in the hopes that the exploited masses would rally to join the progressive struggle. This is why our government is so desperate to destroy them, and why all the elements dependent on imperialist largesse — including the media, academia, and even many middle class leftists — are complicit in spreading lies about them.
The Austin Revolutionary Organizing Collective struggles constantly to resist the pull towards imperialist opportunism and we will do all that we can to stand with the struggle against imperialism. The most important thing we can do? Grow stronger, build our power, and bring revolution that much closer. If you are interested in joining with us in these tasks, please contact us by email. Until then,