Venezuela: Democracy and social justice at stake

Saturday, February 22, 2014
Oil workers march in support of the government and against right-wing violence in Caracas on February 18.

“WHERE IS MURDEROUS DICTATOR #NICOLASMADURO HOLDING #LEOPOLDOLOPEZ ?IS LOPEZ TORTURED,DEAD?INSANE MONSTERS CAN’T BEAR PPL KNOWING THE TRUTH?” So tweeted singer, actress and renowned Venezuelan political analyst Cher on February 19.

Cher was far from the only celebrity to express support for the right-wing protests in Venezuela, and such tweets symbolise how much the source of disinformation and attacks on Venezuela and its democracy has shifted from mainstream to social media.

In fact, as was shown by an expose by Dawg's Blawg of fake images circulating social media to imply the Venezuelan government was repressing peaceful protesters, mainstream outlets such as CNN sometimes took such faked images for its coverage.

So what is actually going on in Venezuela?

As has periodically happened in recent years, over the past few weeks Venezuela has been rocked by violence. At least 10 people had been killed by February 21, including supporters and opponents of the government.

Violent right-wing protesters, calling for the government's removal, have attacked government buildings, public infrastructure, offices of leading government officials, buses, train stations, trade unionists, known government supporters and journalists.

There are frequent reports from Venezuela's alternative media (ignored by the mainstream media) of ongoing terror against government supporters known as “Chavistas”. Chavista support the process of change known as the “Bolivarian revolution”, after 19th century independence fighter Simon Bolivar.

The terror includes "hooded figures" firing on a pro-government "march for peace" by industrial workers in the state Bolivar. At least nine people were wounded.

In another incident, Arturo Alexis Martinez, brother of a PSUV parliamentarian Francisco Martinez, was shot dead in Barquisimeto as he tried to clear the streets of the burning remnants of an opposition barricade.

There have also been peaceful protests both for and against the government, with opposition protests generally based in the wealthier parts of the country and government supporters drawn from the poor and working class.

Perhaps it is to be expected that those with greatest access to social media and more likely to speak English are the middle- and upper-classes ― whose views then get echoed around the world. Mainstream and social media, meanwhile, have mostly ignored marches in support of the government and against the violence.

Maduro and Lopez

Who are Nicolas Maduro and Leopoldo Lopez?

Maduro, a former bus driver and trade unionist, is not a dictator but the democratically elected president. After former president Hugo Chavez died in March last year, Maduro narrowly won as the candidate for Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

The opposition cried “fraud” and began violent attacks that destroyed government buildings and killed at least eight Chavistas. However, the elections were declared free and fair by international monitors. Former US president Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center monitors elections around the globe, has called Venezuela's electoral process the “best in the world”.

There is also no basis to call Maduro a murderer, as Cher does. During the recent violence, Maduro has repeatedly called for dialogue with his right-wing opponents to resolve the situation. He has also called for government supporters to remain peaceful and refrain from revenge attacks.

However, the government has, understandably, said it supports prosecuting anyone caught taking part in violent attacks.

Far from instructing security forces to repress peaceful protests, at least one Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) officer was arrested after a group of officers ignored direct instructions to remain in their barracks on February 12, the day of some of the worst violence.

With Maduro's PSUV having just won a big victory in December municipal elections, government has an interest in achieving stability. It has nothing to gain from violence, whereas the opposition, having repeatedly failed at the ballot box, does.

Lopez is now under arrest over his alleged role in the violence. He is a US-educated Harvard graduate and a leader of the far-right Popular Will party. This is part of the opposition that, as is well-documented, is funded by the US government.

Not only is Lopez calling for the removal of the elected government, his claims to be a democrat are severely compromised by the direct role he played in the 2002 US-backed military coup. This coup briefly replaced then-president Hugo Chavez with the head of Venezuela's main business federation.

During the coup, justified with footage later shown to be faked that implied Chavistas were killing opposition protesters, the constitution, parliament, supreme court and a raft of pro-poor laws were abolished. Nearly 70 pro-democracy protesters, demanding the elected president return, were shot dead by police before an uprising of the poor restored Chavez to power.

Award-winning Irish documentary 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' (above), captured the story of the coup against Chavez and the uprising that restored him.

George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chavez, told Democracy Now! on February 20 that Lopez played a direct role in the violence: “During the coup, … [Lopez] led these sort of witch hunts for Chavista ministers who were brought out and beaten publicly on the way to being arrested.”

Since Chavez was first elected in 1998, the opposition has repeatedly failed to defeat the Bolivarian movement Chavez ― and now Maduro ― led, at the ballot box or on the streets. The Chavista forces have won 17 national elections since 1998.

Redistributing wealth and power

To understand the ongoing attempt to bring down the Bolivarian government, you have to understand that powerful interests ― based in the US and Europe as well as in Venezuela ― have been affected.

Corporate interests have been badly hit in Venezuela ― politically and economically. Chavez's election in 1998 halted plans to privatise the state oil company PDVSA, one of the world's most lucrative.

Nonetheless, the nominally state-owned industry was run as a virtual private concern by its elite managers ― who sold oil at very low prices to Western interests while enriching themselves. Only 20% of PDVSA's revenue went to the elected government, 80% remained in the hands of the management under the guise of “operating costs”.

Then in December 2002, just months after the failed coup, elite managers shut the oil industry down in a fresh bid to overthrow Chavez. Despite the economic chaos unleashed, a sustained mass movement by the poor, oil workers and loyal soldiers defeated the sabotage.

As a result, the elite managers were sacked and the industry was brought fully under control of the elected government. With all revenues going to the government, it was able to fund an ever-growing array of “social missions”. These missions brought free health care, education, cheap food, housing and much more to the poor majority.

Since then, more corporate interests have been directly affected ― from laws strengthening workers' rights to the renationalisation of strategic industries privatised by past governments.

As a result of such policies, poverty has more than halved since 2003 and extreme poverty gone down even further. Illiteracy has been eliminated, hundreds of thousands of new homes built and the minimum wage has risen by 2000% since 1998.

So when on February 18, thousands of oil workers marched through Caracas streets to reject the actions of the right wing and defend the elected government, it carries enormous symbolic resonance.

The oil workers ― and the poor and workers from other sectors who marched with them ― understand they are facing the same enemy as in 2002. If the Lopezs win, it will only be a matter of time before the oil industry shifts to private hands and the social gains are reversed.

But what the corporate elite and its opposition puppets despise most of all is the way Venezuela's previously excluded poor have been empowered.

The country used to belong to the elite at all levels, but the Bolivarian revolution has promoted forms of participatory democracy. The social missions are run by communities in which they operate.

New bodies of direct democracy have been created, most famously the grassroots communal councils that group between 200 to 400 families. These are expanding into communes which are based on elected representatives from the communal councils and make decisions over a larger area.

Those whose interests are affected, from Caracas to Washington, are not happy. No matter how many times they are defeated in their bids to retake political power, they show no signs of stopping.

Much is made of Venezuela suffering shortages in recent times. The media and opposition blame government policies, but the government says capitalists are sabotaging the economy to destabilise the country.

Chile

This is often dismissed as an excuse, but there is a clear precedent. When Chile elected a government headed by left-wing president Salvador Allende in 1970, the US conspired with Chilean capitalists to sabotage the economy and manufacture shortages just like those in Venezuela.

Declassified documents showed that in 1970, then-president Richard Nixon instructed the CIA to “make the economy scream”. The resulting economic chaos laid the groundwork for the 1973 military coup that installed the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Pinochet's regime killed thousands of people and imposed extreme neoliberal policies that enriched capitalists at the expense of the majority.

In Venezuela, the government has sought to integrate the army into the process of change. Right-wing officers who took part in the 2002 coup were removed and the army has so far remained loyal. A coup of the Chilean type does not appear to be on the cards in the short term.

The Venezuelan government is also taking measures to combat hoarding and price speculation. A new law imposes strict limits on profiteering, harsh penalties for companies caught violating the law and Maduro has threatened to expropriate any capitalist caught engaging in sabotage.

It is no surprise that the latest round of right-wing violence came after these new steps in what Maduro called an “economic revolution” were announced.

But the rich and powerful never give up without a fight. Their control of the media and ability to present a manipulated image can cause confusion over what is at stake in Venezuela.

A desperate elite and their powerful backers in Washington have shown time and again they will not accept the democratic will of the majority. The right-wing violence plaguing Venezuela is just one more expression of that, no matter what Cher tweets.

From GLW issue 998