Venezuela's Maduro ‘turns right, represses left’: An interview with Venezuelan human rights activist Antonio González Plessmann

Interview with Antonio González Plessmann by Federico Fuentes.

June 26, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In the face of a prolonged and deep economic and political crisis, Venezuela’s government has embarked on a “turn to the right” in economic policy, while resorting to repression against the left.

This is the conclusion of a new report released by human rights organisation Surgentes, Turn to the right and repression to the left: Human rights violations against Venezuela’s popular camp (2015-2020).

The report says this shift — publicly defended by the government as a tactical turn — directly clashes with “the essential pillars of Chavismo”, the political movement forged by former president Hugo Chávez.

Its findings, which are the result of extensive interviews and fieldwork, echoes what some sections of Chavismo have been arguing for a while.

Link International Journal of Socialist Renewal's Federico Fuentes spoke with Surgentes’ Antonio González Plessmann about the investigation.

Could you outline to us what changes in policies or actions led the group to conclude that the government has turned to the right.

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

Regarding the economy, we have seen a range of deregulation and flexibilisation 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) in 2020 enables the state to continue and deepen the process of privatisations under the cloak of confidentiality;

* Tax exemptions on investments (2018) and imports (2020);

* Elimination of currency controls (2019) 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 in 2021). This makes it cheaper to retrench workers and has generated a mass exodus from the public sector that, in effect, has constituted a process of indirect mass sackings.

* In the context of international coercive measures (sanctions), the state has worked with economic agents and business owners to evade the illegitimate blockade on Venezuela. They have negotiated on behalf of the state the sale or purchase of products in the international market. This, in turn, has generated a network of non-transparent economic interests that promote illicit enrichment of circles close to the political elite.

With the except of this last point, we are basically talking about measures that the right has been asking for over two decades, and which Chavismo had not ceded ground on, because they run contrary to its programmatic aims of prioritising the public over capital.

What I mean by this is its support for increasing popular power — through handing over means of production to the people and promoting self-governing communes — and for a strong state that controls strategic goods and services for the benefit of the majority, all within a framework of a transition towards a democratic alternative to capitalism.

These aims have been left to one side by the governing elite.

In political terms, this economic shift has been accompanied by a progressive closing down of democratic spaces, within state institutions and with regards to expressions of territorial popular power.

But it is important to contextualise this tendency. Until 2015, Chavismo had responded to each crisis, to each anti-democratic assault by the opposition, through calling for mobilisation, self-organisation and popular participation in elections and on the streets.

The important electoral defeat suffered by Chavismo in the 2015 parliamentary elections constitutes a point of inflection.

The opposition’s control of the National Assembly (AN) allowed the right-wing to designate hostile anti-government authorities to other national public powers (judiciary, electoral council and ombudsman). It was also clear that it had the necessary support to active a presidential recall referendum.

This produced a change in Chavismo: consultations and electoral processes, at the level of state institutions as well as at level of territorial popular power, were avoided, restricted or adjusted to suit the government.

For examples:

* Under the guise of internal reorganisation, the Ministry of Communes suspended the registration of new communal council spokespeople in 2016 and, as a consequence of this, elections for spokespeople. When elections were reactivated, conditions were created to facilitate a situation in which only militants of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) or those endorsed by the party participated or were elected.

* Given the enormous difficulties in accessing food, the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAPs) became the most important spaces for mobilisation in the community, displacing the communal councils. Unlike communal council spokespeople, CLAP spokespeople are not elected by popular vote but rather designated by the state and governing party.

* The elected AN was de facto annulled, first via successive Supreme Court rulings and later by the existence of the ANC.

* In response to the insurrectional opposition protests of 2017, the president convoked an ANC without consulting the people with regards to the form of electing the ANC and its mandate. This implied a violation of the universal vote, as some citizens could vote two or more times due to their status as a worker, pensioner, student, etc.

In this sense, the most important power in a democracy was activated but via a mechanism that distorted the expression of popular will. This ANC, elected via a non-democratic method, exercised exceptional powers, elaborated laws, and removed functionaries.

* Political parties, both from the right-wing opposition and the left that has criticised the governing elite’s turn, have had their electoral registration handed over to sectors aligned to the government by electoral and judicial authorities.

How do you explain this turn? Is it principally a result of internal factors within Chavismo, a result of pressure exerted by the blockade and opposition, or a mixed or both?

Different factors explain this turn to the right.

Some are internal, the result of changes in power relations and the governing elite’s economic management, and others are external, in that they are due to the international right’s attacks.

I will deal with the latter first. The unilateral coercive measures imposed by the United States and European Union run systematically contrary to the protection of human rights.

Their impacts on the population are devastating and criminal. They seek to generate a change in government in Venezuela, which is a violation of our right to self-determination.

With all its contradictions and internal tensions, in Venezuela there has been an attempt to construct a democratic alternative to capitalism, one imbued with a Latin Americanist spirit; that is, one that is independent of the US. This is something that imperialism cannot tolerate. What is occurring today in Venezuela cannot be understood outside of the framework of this existing conflict.

What I am saying with this is that the US and EU, by escalating the conflict, are among those responsible for the deterioration of the governing elite, for the tactical turns it has taken to try to survive that ended up becoming strategic, thereby generating changes in what was the Chavista program for transforming society.

Regarding internal factors, we have to say that control of the state — a state that administers oil wealth — has throughout our nation’s history involved the emergence of capitalists associated with the political class. This has also been the case in the past decade.

Corruption and the discretional use of public resources to benefit economic sectors aligned to this elite has generated a network of (legal and illegal) economic interests that have consolidate themselves and worked to undermine the anti-capitalist component of the Bolivarian Revolution.

That is why, when the international coercive measures obliged the government to adopt emergency measures, it was very easy for the governing elite to embrace economic measures commonly associated with neoliberal adjustment programs and promote the role of business in confronting the crisis.

The problem with this is that involves a transformation in what Chavismo stands for. The problem is that it reduces the role of the people, that were previously the protagonist of the Bolivarian Revolution, to that of clients that are appreciative of the elite. The problem is that it abdicates in the face of capital and no longer strives for an alternative to capitalism.

What form has the repression to the left taken? Has there been attempts at dialogue or is the tendency basically the same as what we see with right-wing governments in the region? And do you believe there is a direct relationship between the turn to the right and this repression?

The government continues to identify as left-wing. In fact, the president said he felt offended by accusations that he was repressing the left. But he has begun questioning what he calls the “outdated left”, “the left’s infantilism” and the “exquisite left”.

While there have been some cases where left sectors have been clearly targeted — the censorship of Aporrea, the arrest of dissident Chavistas that are part of the Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APR) or left union leaders — repression is mostly aimed against what we call the popular camp: individuals, organisations and struggles of the popular sectors that traditionally were included in the discourse and practice of the Bolivarian Revolution.

I am referring to campesinos that fight for the democratisation of land or workers who struggle for their labour rights.

Regarding campesinos, there have been important spaces of dialogue. The most notable was the meeting between the president and the Admirable Campesino March. In fact, President Maduro recognised the legitimacy of their demands and created commissions to attend to them.

But three years after those meetings, less than 30% of the agreements have been implemented and the rights of campesinos, as we detail in the report, continue to be violated.

We understand that this is due to the relationship that exists between the package of economic measures and the package of repression that inherently comes with it. It is not possible to implement economic adjustment without generating conflict, and if it not possible to generate consensus on the need to violate social rights, then the only option left is coercion. That is how we see it.

Given the difficult situation Venezuela finds itself in, one could say these measures represent a negative, but necessary retreat if Chavismo is to survive. Do you agree or do you think this turn indicates that the government has fundamentally broken with Chavez’s legacy and the base of Chavismo?

There is no doubt that we have seen a mutation in the governing elite. It no longer raises the Chavista program, even if it continues to quote Chávez and use its image.

Tatuy TV, a left Chavista alternative media outlet, has an excellent video series comprised of a selection of Chávez’s speeches called “Radical Chávez”.

To illustrate the contrast between Chávez and the measures I have talked about, here are some quotes that have been used as titles for their videos: “It is impossible to advance to socialism using the tools of capitalism”, “The hegemony of social property must impose itself”, “Here nothing will be privatised”, “Beware of a Bolivarian oligarchy in our ranks”.

The contrast is evident. Chávez, who spoke a lot in different scenarios and whose words has been widely recorded, seems to be questioning the current turn of the political elite.

The governing elite justifies its turn to the right as the only option available for confronting the induced collapse of the economy. It says it is a tactical, not strategic, turn.

But it seems, at least highly unlikely, that a turn such as this, which supposes the creation of strong economic interests, could be reversed in favour of the post-capitalist aspirations of the Chavista program.

Finally, could you tell us a bit about Surgentes

Surgentes is a collective whose objective is investigation, education, popular accompaniment and impact on public policy in the area of strengthening popular power and human rights.

It was born eight years ago and has as its priority all individuals or peoples who are discriminated against, subordinated or excluded. It is made up of left militants with three decades of experience in the issue of human rights, both at the level of activism as well as the level of the state and academia.

Several of us were part of an attempt to construct a policing policy consist with human rights during Chávez’s government. We were part of the National Commission for Police Reform, involving in the founding of the National Experimental University of Security (Unes) and contributed to the designing of Chávez’s last policing policy: Grand Mission for the Protection of All Human Life Venezuela

Our conception of human rights activism distances us from most human rights NGOs in the country, which have a liberal outlook and are made up of opposition-aligned middle-class professionals.

Our vocation is openly anti-capitalist and from a class perspective. Those of us who work in Surgentes identify as Chavistas.