Venezuela: Blockade, crisis and ‘right turn’

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By Chris Slee

July 18, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Links recently published an interview with Venezuelan activist Antonio Gonzalez Plessmann. He speaks of a "turn to the right" by the Venezuelan government, headed by President Nicolas Maduro.

Gonzalez Plessmann says:

The turn to the right has occurred both in economic and political terms.

Regarding the economy, we have seen a range of measures implemented with the aim of attracting private capital at the expense of social rights.

For example:

* Privatisations have been occurring since 2015, either openly (via the handing over of agricultural land or nationalised companies) or in hidden form (via strategic associations or mixed companies). The anti-blockade law passed by the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) enables the state to continue and deepen the process of privatisations under the cloak of confidentiality;

* Tax exemptions on investments and imports;

* Elimination of currency controls and de facto dollarisation of the economy;

* Systemic violation of labour rights, expressed in the maintenance of one of the lowest minimum wages in the world (about $2 a month); and

* Due to the sanctions imposed on Venezuela, the state has worked with economic agents and business owners that are negotiating on its behalf to evade the illegitimate blockade. This, in turn, has generated a network of non-transparent economic interests that promote illicit enrichment of circles close to the political elite.

Blockade and economic crisis

This "turn" must be seen in context. The Venezuelan economy is experiencing a crisis that is largely due to the economic blockade imposed by United States imperialism (though errors by the Venezuelan government have also played a role).  

The blockade not only bans US companies from dealing with the Venezuelan government.  It forces other countries and non-US companies to comply with US sanctions or face sanctions themselves.  

Severe sanctions began under President Barack Obama, who in 2015 declared Venezuela a threat to US "national security". Even more severe sanctions were imposed under President Donald Trump.  They affect both the export of Venezuelan oil and the import of a range of products, including food, medicine, medical equipment, spare parts for the oil industry, and ingredients needed for converting crude oil into petrol for motor vehicles.

The US has also threatened to invade Venezuela and has supported coup attempts and armed attacks by paramilitary groups based in Colombia.

The economic blockade has reduced the country to extreme poverty.  

In February 2021, United Nations special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures Alena Douhan visited Venezuela.  She reported that sanctions imposed by the US and its allies were having a severe impact on Venezuela's economy and people's health and wellbeing.

Here are some extracts from her report:

Today, Venezuela faces a lack of necessary machinery, spare parts, electricity, water, fuel, gas, food and medicine. Venezuelan assets frozen in United States, United Kingdom and Portuguese banks amount to US $6 billion. The purchase of goods and payments by public companies are reportedly blocked or frozen. The private sector, non-governmental organizations, universities, sport clubs and citizens of Venezuela are reporting the rejection or reluctance of foreign banks to open or keep their bank accounts, including those with correspondent banks in the United States and Europe; difficulties with getting visas and buying tickets; the need to act via third-country agents; and the need to pay extra insurance costs.

It has been reported that electricity lines are able to work at less than 20 per cent of their capacity today.

An estimated 90% of households are connected to the national water distribution system. Numerous households, however, report frequent cuts because of electricity outages affecting water pumps and the maintenance of infrastructure, and because of the shortage of qualified maintenance staff.

Impediments to food imports, constituting more than 50 per cent of food consumption, have resulted in the steadily growth of malnourishment in the past 6 years with more than 2.5 million people being severely food insecure.

Venezuela has been almost entirely dependent upon medicine imported from abroad, while the majority of public medical services were provided by the state free of charge before 2016. Impediments to health care include a lack or severe insufficiency of medicines and vaccines; price growth; electricity shortages to supply equipment; water shortages and sanitation problems that affect hygiene; decaying infrastructure because of a lack of maintenance, the absence of spare parts, the unavailability of new equipment due to the lack of resources or refusals to sell or deliver; degraded working conditions and a lack of protective equipment against infectious diseases; a loss of staff in all medical areas because of low salaries; and the termination of construction of hospitals and primary health care centres.

The blockade is largely responsible for the hyperinflation that has reduced the value of workers' wages to extremely low levels. The government has tried to ameliorate the effects of the crisis through measures such as the distribution of food parcels, but it can't overcome the wide range of problems caused by the blockade.

Gonzalez himself recognises the role of the blockade, which he describes as "devastating and criminal". 

But we also need to look at the weaknesses and limitations of the Chavista movement.

Chavistas and the state

Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 with broad support.

Some of his supporters were socialists, but others were reformists or bourgeois nationalists. Many were people who wanted change, but without a clear understanding of the need for a different economic system.

Chavez began implementing progressive reforms, including programs to promote literacy and bring health care to poor areas.

In 2002, there was a military coup that briefly overthrew Chavez and took him prisoner. It was defeated by a mass mobilisation of the urban poor, accompanied by a split in the army, a section of which supported Chavez.

After the defeat of the coup, the officers who had supported it were removed from the army. This meant that (at least for the time being) the army was no longer a threat to the government and its supporters. The reform process advanced and began to develop into a revolution.

Attempts were also made to reform the police. However, this was less successful. The police remain a reactionary force.

The judiciary remained largely unchanged, as did the civil service bureaucracy.

Thus the old state apparatus largely survived. 

Chavez tried to create new institutions that could bypass the old state apparatus and eventually replace it.

Social missions were created in areas such as health, education and housing, bypassing the existing bureaucratic government bodies.

Communal councils and communes were established in towns and villages throughout Venezuela. With the slogan "commune or nothing", Chavez talked of making them an alternative to the old state apparatus.  But this was an aspiration, not a reality.

A popular militia was created to help defend the country against attacks from reactionary forces based in Colombia and the threat of a US invasion. The militia now has 3 million members.

Chavez also created a new party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).  However, this was a mishmash, including both genuine activists and opportunists.

Chavez died in 2013 and Nicolas Maduro took over as president following elections.

Maduro's period in office has coincided with setbacks and retreats for the revolution. This is mainly due to the blockade, but some decisions of the government have also contributed.


In response to the blockade, some concessions to the capitalist class were unavoidable. The US sanctions that prevented state-owned enterprises from participating in international trade meant the government had to use private companies as intermediaries. 

But this meant an increased role for capitalist companies in the economy. Also, secrecy created opportunities for corruption.

Maduro says he has not abandoned the socialist goal, but argues the blockade makes tactical concessions necessary. 

However tactical retreats can result in lasting changes. And left critics argue that the concessions go beyond what is necessary.

The right to strike has been severely limited and there has been some repression against trade union activists.

Trotsky's analysis of the Soviet state: relevance for Venezuela

Leon Trotsky explained that the degeneration of the Russian revolution was not solely due to the ill-will of individuals, but was to a large extent the result of material conditions.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky writes:

Two years before the Communist Manifesto, young Marx wrote:

A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.

This thought Marx never directly developed, and for no accidental reason: he never foresaw a proletarian revolution in a backward country. Lenin also never dwelt upon it, and this too was not accidental. He did not foresee so prolonged an isolation of the Soviet state. Nevertheless, the citation, merely an abstract construction with Marx, an inference from the opposite, provides an indispensable theoretical key to the wholly concrete difficulties and sicknesses of the Soviet regime. On the historic basis of destitution, aggravated by the destructions of the imperialist and civil wars, the “struggle for individual existence” not only did not disappear the day after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and not only did not abate in the succeeding years, but, on the contrary, assumed at times an unheard-of ferocity. Need we recall that certain regions of the country have twice gone to the point of cannibalism?

Trotsky continued:

The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.

Trotsky's analysis of the reasons for the degeneration of the Russian revolution is applicable to other countries, such as Venezuela. The poverty and destitution created by the blockade have contributed to the deterioration of the Venezuelan government.

Campaign against the blockade!

Campaigning against the blockade is a crucial task for socialists around the world, particularly those living in the US and its allies such as Australia. It is the best way to help those in Venezuela who are fighting to reverse the setbacks and advance the revolution.