Latin America: 'Venezuela defines the progressive cycle'

Claudio Katz

Two recent events — the victory of right-wing candidate Mauricio Macri in Argentina's presidential election in November and the win by Venezuela's right-wing Democratic Unity Roundtable in the December National Assembly elections — have radically altered South America's political map.

In an interview with La Llamarada, Argentine Marxist Claudio Katz discusses what these setbacks for the left mean for the progressive “process of change” that has unfolded on the continent over the last 10-15 years. An abridged version, translated from Spanish by Richard Fidler for his Life on the Left blog, is printed below.

Katz is a professor of economics at the University of Buenos Aires and a member of Economists of the Left. The interview took place just days before Venezuela's outgoing National Assembly called the first meeting of the “National Communal Parliament,” a new legislative structure of delegates from the country's more than 1400 communes, the grassroots bodies in rural and urban communities throughout Venezuela.

President Nicolas Maduro said: “I'm going to give all the power to the communal parliament … This parliament is going to be a legislative mechanism from the grassroots. All power to the Communal parliament.”

The full translated interview can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

* * *

You speak of the duality that has characterised South America over the past decade.

The so-called progressive cycle of the past decade in South America has been a process resulting from partially successful popular rebellions (Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador) that altered the relationship of forces in the region. They allowed us to take advantage of higher prices for raw materials and dollar income in a way that differed considerably from what prevailed in other periods.

During this interval, neo-developmental and distributionist economic policies existed alongside the neoliberal model. Politically, right-wing governments were joined by centre-left and radical governments.

It was a period in which imperialism's capacity for action was seriously circumscribed, with a retreat from the [US-dominated] Organization of American States and the recognition of Cuba.

It was also a decade in which there were no Greek-style adjustments in almost any Latin American countries. And there were important democratic victories. And Chavismo in Venezuela rescued the socialist project.

For all these reasons South America became a point of reference for social movements throughout the world.

There is a duality because this change in the relationship of forces coexisted with a consolidation of the pattern of extractivist accumulation, located in the export of basic raw materials. Latin America was inserted into the international division of labour as a provider of basic products.

That is a natural situation for a neoliberal government. But for centre-left governments, there were tension with that structure. For radical, distributionist governments, this represents a conflict of huge proportions.

There were successful rebellions that resulted in new governments. But such a situation could not coexist indefinitely with the extractivist model and the strengthening of Latin America's traditional dependent economic position.

Now we are confronted by two crucial events. First, the triumph of Macri, which is important because it is the first instance of a rightist return to Argentina's presidency [since the government of Nestor Kirchner in 2004].

The second event is more partial, but more significant. In Venezuela, the right has won the parliament in conditions of a brutal economic war, media terrorism and economic chaos generated by reactionaries. And Venezuela is the most complete symbol of the radical processes.

What is the situation for countries where neolibieral governments and polices have remained intact?

One of the major information gaps in this entire period has been the concealment of what is happening in the countries governed by neoliberalism.

You might get the impression that everything is going marvellously there and that the only problems in Latin America are in the other countries. But in fact this is a monumental media distortion.

It is enough to look at Mexico, a country that has extremely high levels of crime, destruction of the social fabric and huge regions rife with drug trafficking. Or to see the situation of Central American countries decimated by emigration and crime.

Or take the Chilean economic model, which is in a quite critical situation with significantly reduced growth. Family indebtedness, labour precariousness, inequality, and the privatisation of education have begun to surface. And Michelle Bachelet's government is paralysed. Those reforms in pensions and education, which it thought it would carry out, are now delayed.

So in the countries where the raw material rents of this super cycle were not redistributed, the social, political and economic situation is very serious. But no one talks about that.

In Venezuela, you have noted the futility of always and everywhere applying the cliche that “what does not advance, retreats”, that “what does not radicalise, turns back.” What prospects — not abstract but concrete, in terms of the political and social forces — do you see for a radicalisation in Venezuela? What would be the measures to be taken in that direction?

Those phrases are heard repeatedly, but many of those who use them forget to apply them when it is necessary to do so, especially today in Venezuela. In Venezuela, the progressive cycle and the future are being defined. Its outcome will determine the context throughout the region.

It is obvious that imperialism has set its sights on Venezuela. The United States recognises Cuba, has friendly relations with many governments, but not Venezuela. There, it imposes declining oil prices, supplies paramilitary groups, finances conspiratorial NGOs, operates militarily.

It has set in motion strategies for overthrow [of the Bolivarian revolution] that have been prepared for some time. The elections unfolded in the context of economic war. For the first time [since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998] it won a majority in the parliament and is now aiming to call a referendum to revoke Maduro's mandate.

The right will try to straddle two paths, that of [Miranda governor Henrique] Capriles and that of [far right leader] Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez promotes a return to the guarimbas [violent street protests] while Capriles favours a war of attrition against Maduro. The two complement each other, they are two parts of the same thing.

Now there is strong pressure on Maduro to agree to negotiation, which would leave him overwhelmed without the ability to do anything. But he can also react and apply the famous phrase: a process that does not radicalise will regress. He can land a counterblow.

A big conflict is approaching, because the right-wing parliament will demand powers the president is not prepared to give it. The parliament will vote amnesty for Lopez [in jail for his role in deadly street violence] and the executive will veto it. The executive will bring out a law against hoarding and the parliament is not going to accept it.

Since it takes a year to prepare a recall referendum — they have to collect the signatures, they have to have them officially recognised, they have to call the referendum and win it — this is going to generate a major conflict. And therein lies the dilemma.

There is a conservative sector — social democratic or mixed up in corruption — within Chavismo that has no desire to respond through a radicalisation of the process.

That sector stands in the way of reacting against the Empire's aggression. It is obvious that imperialism is waging an economic war on Venezuela, but the problem is that Maduro has not managed to defeat those attacks. The problem is that Venezuela continues to receive dollars through [state oil company] PDVS, and those dollars are handed over to sectors of the corrupt civil service, and capitalists, who recycle them and ruin the Venezuelan economy.

Those dollars find their way into smuggling to Colombia, into creating shortages, into exchange rate speculation, and the country lives with queues and general irritation.

Venezuela is now also burdened with a sizeable public debt. It does not have enough dollars to pay for all the imports and at the same time pay the debt.

In these conditions, the social-democratic and conservative sectors limit themselves to complaining about “the terrible situation imposed by imperialism”, but without taking effective action to thwart that aggression.

This conduct increases demoralisation. The right won the elections not so much because it stole votes from Chavismo, but because people did not go out to vote. That has happened before. It is a form of protest that some Venezuelans engage in.

And much more serious is the attitude of leaders who say goodbye to Chavismo or return to private life. They express no opinion or criticise the government instead of proposing radical measures against the right. That, in turn, is worsened by the government's conduct in blocking left currents from developing. Instead of encouraging and facilitating them, it limits their space. And it maintains the verticalist structure of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

As many people say, this time it is the last opportunity. Now or never. And this last opportunity means making decisions in two very clear-cut areas.

Economically: to nationalise the banks and foreign trade, and to use those two tools to define new ways of using the dollars. There are many good economists who have been saying this for 10 years now. They have devised programs that explain in detail how this is done. These are not unknown measures.

The other pillar is political. To sustain the radicalisation, communal power is needed. Venezuela now has laws and a structure that provide for administering the country with a new form of communal organisation; from below and from above, with distinct authorities.

It is a decisive architecture for popular power to contend with the right-wing parliament. If Maduro and the Venezuelan leadership want to rescue the Bolivarian process, this is the time for communal power.

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