Is socialism still on Venezuela's horizon?

Chavez socialism

First published at Venezuela Analysis.

One of the first things you hear in therapy is that in order to heal you need to recognize the internal issues that are stopping you from achieving that goal, such as self-sabotage or lack of boundaries, alongside external traumatic events that caused you harm in the first place, turning you into someone you don’t recognize anymore. The first ones are factors that we can control, making them all the more important.

Could a therapy session be applied to an entire government? This might sound like a joke, but bear with me. I truly believe that this exercise could be beneficial for everyone affected by the external and internal issues that plague our country and elected leaders.

If the Venezuelan government were to go to therapy, the questions that would arise in order to determine responsibilities for the state of the country, would go as follow: US sanctions are largely to blame for the economic crisis, but who is responsible for the unequal distribution of the oil rent as diminished as it might be? How much of people’s apathy in a pre-electoral year is the result of corruption and leaders that ignore workers’ demands? While sanctions were meant to make the socialist project unviable and achieve regime change, why not strengthen popular power and the role of the state instead of relying on the private sector?

In order to answer these questions, as if we were in therapy with the government, we need to begin with the external traumatic events: US sanctions.

President Maduro has said time and again how the executive is squeezing out resources amidst a brutal Washington-led blockade, which is true. US sanctions have strangled our economy to the point of triggering one of the world’s largest economic collapses outside of wartime. This collapse happened by design in order to “take” Venezuela’s oil as former US President Donald Trump candidly revealed in an incendiary speech.

The losses have been devastating, not only in economic numbers but also in human lives and living standards with deteriorated healthcare, education and public services. To this day, the full consequences of this criminal imperialist siege are still unimaginable.

The Venezuelan people have understood the impact of US sanctions very well. Recently, a popular communicator known as “Mango” visited several open food markets in Caracas and asked passers-by what they thought of the country’s economic struggles and its causes. The first person he came across immediately said US measures were heavily responsible, proving that most people recognize this traumatic event that forced us into survivalism.

Every working-class person also understands that the economic war against Venezuela has few precedents in history, so it’s not like the government had any guideposts on how to defend the nation. Mistakes were expected as well as setbacks on the road toward socialism.

What it’s often questioned is the government’s unwillingness to rectify mistakes regarding an economic strategy that is leaving a large portion of the population behind and discarding socialist values. These are the internal issues that we’ll examine in this hypothetical therapy session.

1. Set healthy boundaries

When has the private sector favored workers over profit at any point in history? The answer is never. Yet, in recent years, the Venezuelan government has transferred lands and state enterprises to private actors under a new business model called "strategic alliance.”

For a capital-starved country under US sanctions, this might sound like a necessary solution but these arrangements have unsurprisingly been mired in corruption and labor violations. Such was the case of Lácteos Los Andes, where a brave worker was able to speak to Maduro on live television in 2021 to denounce irregular practices and how workers’ proposals to ramp up production for the country’s subsidized CLAP food program were being ignored. This story repeats itself in many other places but these alliances have continued to silently expand.

Why not trust the means of production to workers, the ones that actually produce and care about the people? There are successful stories in the country, even in these times, so we know it’s possible. This way people would fight against the US blockade with an actual goal that is not just survival.

Furthermore, the private sector enjoys favorable conditions such as tax breaks on imports, no price or currency exchange controls and access to subsidized dollars. This sector is also growing on the back of cheap labor that mostly has very young faces.

In a recent interview, a PSUV governor made an attempt at explaining this new economic logic. He said it is similar to the Chinese model, with the state acting like a mere supervisor and allowing the private sector to accumulate wealth as long as it creates jobs. Does this mean that Venezuelan socialism is not the goal anymore? What happened with “Plan de la Patria 2019-2025”, the political and economic road map toward socialism that follows the legacy of Hugo Chávez? This program not only puts the people’s well-being above all but it looked to consolidate the socialist productive model by prioritizing public, social, cooperative and communal property.

Befriending the business elites might have been a necessary evil to stabilize the country because it kept their coup plotting and food-hoarding habits at bay, but it’s also time to put some healthy boundaries so we don’t give the country away. After all, it's the people who vote to ratify or change presidents and political projects, not wealthy entrepreneurs.

2. Learn how to listen

In May, President Maduro announced that the minimum wage would stay at 130 bolívares (around US $5) and raised public sector workers' income to $70 through non-wage bonuses. But when he asked the crowd if they agreed with this measure many were caught on camera screaming “No!”. It went viral on social media and workers have continued manifesting their discontent in the streets, demanding a living wage and collective bargaining rights that have been denied to them for years now. Yet, no authority seems to listen.

The parliament’s president once said that they could not increase wages because it would spike inflation again after finally reducing to (monthly) single digits, but economists have explained that the inflation peak at the end of 2022 responded to the private sector increasing prices in US dollars, racking up profits. Either way, $5 or $75 are not dignified wages.

Public sector employees, especially teachers and healthcare workers, are the backbone of every country and the government has a responsibility to prioritize their well-being. There is a current proposition from leftist collectives to make bonuses part of salary which would positively impact many labor benefits such as vacation pay. Authorities have a moral obligation to hear and accept this proposal.

On that line of reasoning, if the government is capable of listening to right-wing politicians that promoted sanctions and foreign interventions, it can also open a dialogue with leftist organizations and unions that have been defending workers’ rights incessantly. This of course includes the Venezuelan Communist Party. But for their own mental health, the Marxist organization also has to put aside its revenge-driven campaign.

3. Recognize your own red flags

When your country is under siege you protect and ration supplies, always making sure that the most vulnerable are taken care of first. But how can we safeguard and fairly distribute the oil rent under laws that conceal how much income we are receiving?

The anti-blockade law approved in 2020 to circumvent sanctions led to a complete lack of transparency in oil contracts resulting in the recent multibillion-dollar corruption scandal in state oil company PDVSA that saw many top managers arrested. This tidbit of information was never revealed to the public because recognizing flaws is always hard. It’s time for lawmakers to admit that this legislation was a giant red flag all along.

Corruption is also intertwined with workers’ rights being stomped upon. Is it a coincidence that oil workers had been demanding new collective contracts and living wages for years with no reply? Is it also a coincidence that a huge number of steelworkers were fired or their salaries reduced in 2020 while their now-jailed corrupt bosses were at the head of this company? It is only fair to free the many workers arrested during protests for denouncing corruption cases that have all turned out to be true.

It is also time to examine the selectiveness of the judicial system because between blatant corruption and opposition politicians constantly escaping, we could write another season for Prison Break. In 2017, former Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez “escaped” amidst a corruption probe. In March, his successor Tareck El Aissami disappeared after the new scandal broke out. Are we to find out in a few months that he also “escaped”? If not guilty, authorities need to come out and say so. He at least has political responsibility amidst all this. Otherwise, the argument that covered-up corruption (and not sanctions) is responsible for the crisis would only be reinforced.

4. Face your inner monster

Nobody would deny that some of the government’s measures have yielded positive results. After what seemed like a neverending nightmare, the economy grew, hyperinflation ended and food shortages became a thing of the past. But between a pampered private sector, “legal” corruption and an ignored working class, this has quickly become an economic recovery for the few and a political project that is becoming harder to recognize.

The only way forward is to own up to mistakes and face this Frankenstein monster that the government has created. A monster that just like the one in Mary Shelly’s novel, could never fit in Venezuela’s socialist world for obvious reasons. Will it also turn against us or has it already done so?