A comradely response to Mike Gonzalez’s 'Letters from Venezuela'

Example of Chavista graffiti in an area where Dan Gent was living in Merida. The opposition barricades are way down the road, where you will not find any of this graffiti. 

See also "Federico Fuentes replies to Mike Gonzalez". For more discussion on developments in Venezuela, click HERE.]

April 11, 2014 -- RS21 -- Dan Gent, writes from Venezuela having witnessed the events surrounding the opposition riots. It is offered as a comradely response to Mike Gonzalez’s "Letters from Venezuela". This piece was originally published on the Comrade Markin blog, where there are more photos that Dan has taken in Venezuela. Dan was a participant in the most recent solidarity brigade organised by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network.

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Opposition protests have rocked Venezuela for over a month now and in many areas barricades remain. These had already been going on for a while in Merida and being called protests is a loose term as these have mainly involved youths with their faces covered, setting up burning barricades in the street to completely block the road, mostly lacking any political slogans or any message. These started with students from the University of Los Andes, one of Venezuela’s elite universities, who would repeatedly block the main road of Merida (Avenida de Las Americas). Supported by the university management (who have always been anti-Chavista) who would then shut the university down whenever the tyre burning started. These protests only involved a hand full of people who would then run into the university whenever the police arrived, exploiting the fact that the police can’t legally enter the university and that the management would do nothing to help the police arrest them.

These events started to spread throughout the country when on the 22nd of January, Leopold Lopez (one of the signatories to the 2002 coup attempt) and a group of opposition leaders demanded “La Salida” (the exit) of the Chavista government. In Tachira, in early February, opposition supporters attacked the state Governor’s house with Molotov cocktails leading to a string of arrests, and then on the 12th of February, National Youth Day, the opposition marches ended in violence with many public buildings in central Caracas destroyed. Since then the various tyre burnings and blockades in major roads have escalated into permanent barricades closing off entire areas of cities. While these barricades have been responsible for many deaths and caused much disruption across the country, they are only present in a handful of opposition ran municipalities.

I have spent the last 6 weeks living in Merida, the capital of Merida state and a stronghold for the opposition, and the middle class area of the main road of Avenida Las Americas has been blocked by barricades resembling a war zone for weeks now. But take a bus for an hour in any direction and you wouldn’t know there was a problem. Recently I went to Elorza in the region “Los Llanos”, a huge flat plain several times the size of the UK, where the place is covered with PSUV propaganda. I took a ride on a mototaxi in solid red with PSUV logos all over it, and a rode in a speedboat with PSUV propaganda covering the engine. The riots in east Caracas and Merida feel as far away as they do in England. It is very important to note that the riots only affect core opposition areas and are not moving into other areas, especially not Chavista areas. As Mike says in his article, he lives in “a middle class dormitory suburb” of Caracas. Now I don’t want to attack him as I’m not about to move to a barrio, but where you live does affect how you view the situation. Presumably this area is in the east of the city, the highest average earnings in Venezuela, solid 80+% vote for the opposition and one of the epicentres of the recent opposition violence.

The opposition protests have an ever increasing list of complaints that centre around a few various themes; “against food scarcity” “against high inflation”, “against police violence”, ” against medical shortages.” Now what I think Mike is doing in his article here is justifying these complaints, and in effect justifying the protests but saying that they come from middle class areas. Whereas, if the situation was so insufferably bad, then what we would see is a repeat of the Caracazo; the uprisings that led to the current period of social struggle. I will come back on a few of these.

As Mike puts in his earlier article on Venezuela “2012 had seen inflation rates hovering around 50% (officially) and the level has risen inexorably throughout the last year.” Readers in countries like the UK or USA with their low inflation will be blown away with the figure of 50% inflation. I remember with the start of the financial crisis when the Bank of England cut interest rates to 0.5% while inflation was at a few per cent, therefore every year you lost a few per cent from your savings rather than gain. My few hundred pounds in the bank were worth marginally less each year, not more. After spending months in Latin America I’m now blown away with how the money I have in the UK even maintains its value, compared to countries with weak currencies where the only way people save is by converting their savings to dollars. The BBC always repeats the figures that Venezuela has the highest inflation in Latin America but, apart from the fact this has historically always been the case, before Chavez inflation was at 110%! For those interested you can see the statistics here.

This is how the right wing in England talks about UK public debt, they start all their graphs and figures from when debt was historically low, but if they start it from the 1950s then it’s clear that UK debt is now about a third of the peak level and is hard to present a case of austerity. This is how Venezuelan inflation is now. While 50% is very high, this is much better economically then deflation, and minimum wage increases have recently outpaced inflation. The only reason that 50% is talked about is high is because Chavez managed to bring down inflation to around 25%. As an economy that is based on exporting oil Venezuela suffers from a phenomenon known as “Dutch disease.” A huge commodities boom causes a huge inflow of money to a countries’ economy. This leads to an increased demand in the service industry at the expense of manufacturing along with large inflation. The result being that it is cheaper to import everything than manufacture goods or grow crops. Exactly what is happening, and has happened in Venezuela since oil was discovered in the 1930s.

At the same time we have to be careful with worrying too much about measures of inflation. If we look at the situation of students in the UK, going from grants to fees of £9000 a year in a couple of years, what is the inflation of negative to +£9000? Venezuelan students enjoy free universities with free dining halls and free buses including outside of school hours (just to name a few benefits), how does that fit into inflation? House prices in the UK have been rising at 20% a year in comparison with the minimum wage since the seventies, where as with ‘Mission Vivienda’ Venezuelans have been given houses where they pay roughly a day’s wage a month, and the house is theirs within a few years.

When I have explained to people living in these houses what percentage people in London pay from their salary for a flat and how much the price increases yearly they cannot believe this. It’s also worth remembering that if you have never had money to save, mainly have debts and a minimum wage rising at the rate of inflation, then high inflation is not so bad. While high inflation is definitely a cause for concern, I don’t think this is nearly as big a concern as the Venezuelan right wing and western media hype up, and from speaking to Chavistas on the ground it doesn’t seem to be the main problem that dominates their debates. Rising bus prices were one of the factors that contributed to the Caracazo uprising yet Venezuela has some of the world’s cheapest public transport, electricity, gas and the world’s cheapest petrol.

Looking at Mike’s account of the situation he is experiencing in Venezuela, I will assume that the area that Mike is talking of is east Caracas, this is an area that has ALWAYS been anti-Chavez. Shortly after the 2002 coup, the main square in Alta Mira (eastern Caracas) had a speech and it was named the first liberated square of Venezuela. It’s very important to state that whatever shortages there were before, the areas with barricades now suffer really serious shortages. I’m very sure that his accounts of shortages could well be caused by the “Small barricades ….[that] appear on most nights” where they have been stopping and occasionally burning or kidnapping food and petrol trucks.

In Mike’s earlier article he mentions “increasingly empty shelves of shops and supermarkets” but now this has turned to “Supermarket shelves are empty” which is not the case for where I am in Merida (one of the worst affected places by the barricades) let alone for other areas of the countryside I’ve visited. Famine is not an issue in Venezuela now. The reality is that there is a shortage of some staple products. Milk is hard to find, but if you want cheese, yoghurt, or any other dairy product then you will have no problem, just not milk. The same goes for lack of toilet paper, if you can make do with kitchen roll or serviettes then you’ll have no problems. While I would definitely argue that there is a problem with “scarcity” (which is not to say there is no food, just that certain items cannot be found in certain supermarkets and you need to shop around for them) the massive gains that Chavismo has made in nutrition (the average calories eaten by a Venezuelan increased from 91% of the recommended amount in 1998 to 101.6% in 2007) far overrides having to eat pasta in place of buying wheat flour.

Let us not forget the great successes that Chavismo has had in Venezuela, by the Gini index (a measure of equality) it is now the most equal country in Latin America and poverty was reduced from 50% in 1998 to 25% in 2012 with extreme poverty reduced from 23.4% in 1999 to 8.5% in 2011. In the UN happiness report Venezuela has been reported as the happiest country in Latin America for the 2nd year running, and in terms of economic success it achieved growth of 5.6% in 2012.

Now what the above arguments lead into is that Chavismo, due to its “failures”, is almost finished and this is what the election result shows. But is there any proof that Chavismo is losing support? If we look at the votes numerically, instead of the percentage, we see a different story which shows almost no proof that Chavista voters are moving to the opposition.

Chavez’s came to power in 1998 with a victory of 56.2% with 3,673,685 votes. His 2000 victory, with the very rare of achievement of increasing his percentage, with 60% was with 3,757,773 votes. In the 2012 election his share dropped to 55.1% yet increased numerically to 8,191,132 votes. In the post-Chavez 2013 election between the candidate from one of Venezuela’s richest families and a trade unionist from the Caracas bus network, Maduro got 7,587,579 votes.

What has happened here is the opposition have increased their votes from 2,613,161 in 1998 to 7,363,980 in 2013. However in the municipal elections that followed in December 2013 (that Caprilles hyped up as being a referendum on Chavismo), Chavismo won with 49,24% (5,111,336 votes) of the vote nationally versus 42,72% (4,435,097 votes) of the MUD. Compare this with the last US elections where Obama won with 51.1% against 47.2%.

To understand this you just need to look at Caprilles in his press conferences; unshaven, wearing a baseball cap and sports jacket made out of the Venezuelan flag. Imagine David Cameron doing a press conference in Adidas tracksuit bottoms and caps, even the left wing politicians in Europe dress in suits. This is how far the right have been pushed here by Chavismo in their struggle to build a coherent platform of opposition. From speaking to various people in the last few months (generalising from my own experience in such a complex ever changing situation is always difficult) Caprilles promised to continue the missions (the huge welfare projects that Chavez started with oil money) and even improve them. This is when he got so close to Maduro in the presidential election. After this he reverted to his real politics of being a nasty right winger (causing various riots in which Chavistas died as he claimed election fraud and etc) and he lost the last election (which was only a municipal election but which he penned as a referendum) by 10%.

So if the above factors are not bad enough to provoke an uprising, who are the protestors and what are their reasoning? There is an ever expanding list written on their placards and parroted by international media; this started off with “against food scarcity, against high inflation, no more deaths” and has since included “against police violence, free all political prisoners, against medical shortages.” Apart from the fact that the barricades have caused deaths and worsened the shortages significantly (medical shortages and food scarcity as trucks have stopped delivering in Tachira and of course any area that is barricaded) they also protest against police repression, but then this only started after the protest so therefore is not an initial reason.

I have highlighted above that these reasons aren’t bad enough to bring down the government, in order to explain why these opposition protests haven’t gained majority support in the country, and to also explain what I think are the real reasons behind these protests. The first thing to repeat is that the barricades are all in opposition strongholds and all the marches start from opposition strongholds (in Caracas they all start in east Caracas) therefore these are people that have been against Chavismo from the start. Therefore what is the real reason for the protests? Class war. The barricades only appear in middle and upper class areas, the “SOS Venezuela” slogans only appear on the $40,000 cars driven by the rich (never the battered cars from the barrios), and the protesters have gone out their way to attack everything that benefits the poor; public transport (both private and government provided buses, and metro stations), subsidised food projects (both the shops and the delivery trucks), public hospitals and Mission Barrio Adentro pods, public museums, public universities, just name a few.

In the weeks leading up to barricades in Merida there were various opposition protests that consisted in putting up posters and painting slogans on the road. Some of these hand written posters were really eye opening to their real motives. Lots talked about the overthrowing of Maduro “the dictator” but then the most interesting one I saw said “Maduro, a president that never studied will never understand the students” a very open class hatred that a trade unionist is president, from a student elite.

Looking at the current barricades in Merida I have seen effigies of Maduro hanging from lampposts, and the graffiti now has slogans like “Comrade, the revolution has failed,” “Maduro dictator, leave office now” and etc. Right wing slogans bordering on fascism (unfortunately I don’t have pictures of these as the area is really dangerous to get your camera out). Helpfully giving an insight into the real motives behind their protests, student leaders from across the country recently released a five point manifesto outlining their actual demands. These are:

  • No to dialogue with a “clientalist and totalitarian regime… for us any dialogue is imperatively conditioned on a complete overhaul of the political system.”
  • “Withdrawal of all occupying Cuban military forces”
  • “Individual freedom. Economic freedom to be able to live off the fruits of our own labour…. We do not accept the controls imposed by this castro-communist regime…”
  • The dissolution of Chavista collectivos aka “paramilitary groups”
  • Free all those detained in recent protests and allow all exiles to return

No mention of the scarcity and other reasons they say in the international press. These goals are becoming more and more apparent in the right wing national press, more and more calling against the “Cuban dictatorship.” The students have now said that they won’t negotiate with Maduro until there is an end to police repression, but in comparison with a country like the UK, police repression is non-existent here. In the UK a small group of people would never be able to block a main road every day for a month and be so open about organizing; on Facebook the barricaders proudly paste up pictures of their latest barricades and organise their next session for making Molotov cocktails. And when the police don’t come to pay more attention to them (in their quest for more repression), they swiftly burn a few buses and cars and attack a public building (they attacked the science museum in Merida this week).

If the opposition really cared about concerns of scarcity, violence and inflation then they would actually offer solutions (as they never do) instead of just exacerbating the situation. Maduro’s latest change to the currency controls has caused a fall in the black market rate for the first time since the death of Chavez, yet there is no talk of this by the opposition. Never do they talk on how to stop scarcity. Maduro has started bringing in ration cards in the government subsidised supermarkets (Mercal, PDVAL) to stop scarcity and speculation. A similar scheme was done with petrol stations in states bordering Colombia and worked very well, yet Maduro is instantly attacked for the Cubanisation of Venezuela without any other solutions presented.

This brings us to the question of what the opposition hope to do right now with the protests and barricades and what they hope to achieve. Mike talks of a national liberation movement in the west of Venezuela between Merida,Tachira and Zulia. Personally I’ve not seen much evidence for Mike’s idea of independence for the western Venezuela. I have spent lots of time in Merida, the capital of Merida state, and I have seen no evidence here of an Andean liberation movement (which would link them with Tachira and actually more with the Andes in Colombia). The opposition protestor’s uniform is to be draped in the Venezuelan flag (caps, jackets, huge flags they carry) and they talk about change of government in Caracas. I’m not sure how much a possibility is of Zulia breaking away (a low lying state that has most of the oil) and how the rest of Venezuela would react, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this although I haven’t spent much time in Zulia.

What effect will the barricades have? Mike says “The effect is to make the middle class angrier” and it’s hard to say and generalise from my own experience but from latest surveys only 11% of Venezuelans support the barricades and 80%+ are against violent protest. In the last election the municipality of Chacao (that contains Alta Mira and is one of the centres of barricades) voted 84% for the MUD (the coalition of the opposition). While I don’t think they will voting Chavismo anytime soon, these places can barely be any more opposition voting.

Whether Caprilles will pose himself as the peaceful candidate and try to put the barricades down as violent groups with the Chavistas on one side (calling the Collectivos and the National Guard Chavistas) is uncertain, but he hasn’t condemned the protests and he hasn’t attended the peace conferences, and the gap between him and Maduro widened in the last elections. Other theories are that parts of the opposition (headed by Leopold Lopez) are tired of Caprilles’ moderate stance.
Now what should Chavismo do about these protests? Or what can they do? Firstly I just want to describe the class make up of the different parts of Venezuelan. Unlike in the UK where the inner city is poor and working class, the city is surrounded by richer suburbs which are more middle class, and then the countryside is conservative, here you have almost the complete opposite. The rich live in the inner city; here in Merida they populate Avendia Las Americas (the principal road) and in Caracas they live in the east part but very centrally. Surrounding the centre of the city are the poor barrios, and the countryside is solid Chavista. Chavez’s support has always been in the barrios and the countryside.

All the remaining barricades are in these inner city areas and all in opposition ran mayoralties. Merida I continue to use as an example because I’ve been here since before the start of barricades and it has some of the biggest barricades in Venezuela. In Merida it appears that the opposition Mayor hasn’t done anything, so the state governor (Chavista) has tried to clear the area with the Guardian National Bolivariano (GNB). Far away from being the repressive dictatorship that the opposition like to pretend, the death count ratio of riot police to civilians is in the single figures. In a crackdown in military dictatorships normally hundreds of people are killed for every dead police officer. This is shown that of the 30 deaths about 10 are oppostion, 10 chavista, and the remaining are coppers, people that couldn’t get to hospital or people decapitated by barbed wire. This isn’t Egypt where they are piling up dead bodies killed by the police or any of the previous Latin American military dictatorships.

Now in Merida when the state governer has cleared the barricades, the Guarimbas(Spanish name given to the people running the barricades) run away and then come back to set them up later. Now I could write a good amount how they should really borrow from British police tactics. Have cameras on drones, helicopters and Forward Intelligence Teams to record the rioters and then find them afterwards. Follow these up with a “shop a looter” information campaign in all the papers to find the Guarimbas. Actually just arrest everyone on the barricades, and then drive up and down Avenida Las Americas ready for anyone to set these up. To anyone who has ever been involved with a protest in England, the police here appear to be so lenient with protesters and there are so many rights for protestors it’s incredible, a handful of opposition are just allowed to block main roads in the daytime and the police just stand by to guard them. But then the problem here is leaving the state to deal with problems like this is not the right solution (although the GNB are very different to the riot police of the UK or USA, after clearing Alta Mira plaza they did a victory loop blasting out left wing folk music), but then when normal Chavistas have tried to get involved in cleaning the barricades, they have been killed. In Merida they killed a Chilean chavista last week, snipered from a rooftop.

So in a scenario where the opposition looks like they have been trying to do a repeat of the 2002 coup attempt (the right wing newspaper El Nacional has even been recycling newspaper headlines from 2002!), the last thing the Chavistas want to do is send a load of Chavistas into a street battle with the Guarimbas which the opposition will be ready to turn into a bloodbath and call to the international community for help (read “USA waiting for regime change”). This is especially so given that these barricades are only in opposition areas. In Caracas why would the west of the city march to the east of the city to liberate middle class opposition areas from themselves? Although the Organisation of American States (OAS) recent vote ended with a motion that went really well in favour of Venezuela, i’m not sure how it would turn out if there was huge violence and a lot of deaths.

But then you’ve got to ask how much of a problem these barricades are to chavistas care. The city of Merida has been very affected as has San Cristobal, but these are opposition strongholds and, speaking from Merida, they have effectively just blockaded their own street. It’s very annnoying as the bus station is on Avendia Las Americas (so is closed as surrounded by barricades). But I have spent the day in Merida town centre (the other side of a separating river) and everything is open. Traffic is possibly worse maybe (no main road but then less cars) and if I want to get a national bus then rather than all be in the central bus station there are regional buses waiting in the north and south of the city and from there I go to neighbouring cities to catch national buses. Inconvenient but not the end of the world. If a leftwing reformist government got elected in the UK and Altrincham barricaded themselves in, would we march down from the working class districts of Manchester especially if it risked a bloodbath and the invasion of neighbouring states just waiting to put their friends back in power? Especially if the last election was won with an increasing margin.

What I have tried to do in this article is show that the economic success of Chavismo and its gains have been very successful and have not faltered in recent years, and neither has their election performance, and that while there are economic concerns these are not enough to cause a change of government. These concerns have been massively over-hyped by the opposition who really are protesting because they want Chavismo out of power and are much closer to fascist attempts at regime destabilisation than the seeds to a new grassroots movement for social change. Therefore it is very debatable as to how these tactics will win over any new people to the opposition and how much any of this represents the end of the Bolivarian Revolution.

[RS21 is published by the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century group, which is a formation of former members of the British Socialist Workers Party. If you would like to take part in the next Australia-Venezuela Solidarity brigade, please email: info@venezuelasolidarity.org, or phone Jim on 0423 741 734, Roberto on 0425 182 994 or Lisa on 0413 031 108. Visit http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org.]