July 12, 2016

By W. T. Whitney Jr.

Lisa Sullivan was worried: her neighbor was “up and waiting in line since 2 am, searching, unsuccessfully, to buy food for her large family.” Sullivan, who grew up in the United States and has lived in Venezuela for decades, is concerned too about Venezuela’s worsening economic and political crisis.

Most Venezuelans have experienced major social gains courtesy of the Bolivarian Revolution, led by Hugo Chávez, president from 1999 to 2013, who espoused “socialism of the 21st century.” Oil exports fueled these gains and low oil prices are shaking the foundations of Venezuela’s social democracy.

Now, as before, U. S. intervention is on full display. The U. S. Senate in April passed a bill renewing the economic sanctions against Venezuelan leaders imposed in 2014. The House of Representatives followed suit on July 6. President Obama will sign the bill. In an earlier executive order he declared Venezuela a threat to U. S. national security.

The State Department on July 7 alerted U.S. travelers to “violent crime” in Venezuela, warning that “political rallies and demonstrations can occur with little notice.”Venezuela’s government denounced the “illegitimate sanctions” as “imperial pretensions.” The U.S. government backed an unsuccessful coup against the Chávez government in 2002 and since has distributed tens of millions of dollars to opposition groups. It still withholds recognition of Nicolas Maduro’s election as president in 2013.

What purpose could there be for such actions other than regime change? A document attributed to Admiral Kurt Tidd of the U.S. Southern Command and circulated in early 2016 testifies to a military component of U. S. plans. Citing the “the defeat in the[parliamentary] elections and internal decomposition of the populist regime,” the text refers to “the successful impact of our policies [against Venezuela] launched under phase one of this operation.” The slim margin of votes securing the presidency for Maduro signaled his vulnerability. A divided rightwing opposition scored a decisive electoral victory in December 2015.

It now holds a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Maduro will likely soon be facing a recall vote. Solidly opposed to the Bolivarian government, Venezuela’s business class holds court over the economy, thoroughly devastated due to inflation which currently is at astronomic levels. Shortages of essential items are causing major distress. Businesses and merchants depend on imported goods and materials.

After 15 years of the Bolivarian revolution, Venezuela still has to import 70 percent of its food. The government tries to facilitate imports by selling dollars to importers at low exchange rates. Many of them go on to profit by selling imported products at inflated prices through the black market. Meanwhile goods people need for survival don’t arrive at stores serving poor people, especially at the markets selling government – subsidized food and household supplies. Accusations are rife that importers and wholesalers hoard goods for the sake of profitable sales later on.

However, Lisa Sullivan reports that the “majority of Venezuelans” support neither the opposition nor the Maduro government. But “this doesn’t mean that [they] are not fans ofchavismo,” she adds. Indeed, “a whole generation of my neighbors and friends gain access to dignified housing, free education, stable jobs with honorable wages, and free health care.” Analysts attribute the government’s defeat in the 2015 parliamentary elections to Bolivarian voters withholding their votes, not to their having backed the opposition. They objected to governmental corruption, divisions within Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and disregard by officials of problems at the grassroots.

Journalist Tamara Pearson suggests that despite “food shortages, inflation, and queues … millions of people” have “defied right-wing and general expectations, and even perhaps the expectations of the Maduro government, and have become stronger and better organized.” The question looms as to whether or not Venezuela’s military will remain loyal to the socialist government. President Chávez, a former army officer, counted on support from the armed forces.

As reported by analyst Milton D’León, Chávezinstituted “a dizzying increase in arms spending, the creation of military schools and universities, greater presence in political decisions, higher salaries for officials, and privileges of all kinds.” Maduro’s 30-member cabinet includes 10 active or retired military leaders. His government has created a “socialist military economic zone” that hosts businesses whose activities contribute to the military’s economic development. D’León warns of danger for “working people [from]the growing role of the military … whether it is supporting Maduro, or spilling over to support a ‘transition’ by striking a deal with the right-wing [and] imperialism.”

Marxist analyst Edgar Meléndez sees a constricted future for the Bolivarian government. Implementation of the socialist project faltered, he thinks. He points out that the socialist state accounts for 96.6 U.S. dollars out of every $100 gained through exports. Yet these resources eventually “drain” to the private sector. Thus “private accumulation is prioritized over resources the state produces. This is opposite to the interests of working people.” He condemns “mono-production of petroleum accounting for 94 percent of Venezuela’s 2014 exports.” That and “a parasitic bourgeoisie” are “two of the most noxious characteristics of the Venezuelan economic model… This situation, within the framework of capitalism itself, is a brake on the development of productive forces in our country.”

Lisa Sullivan knows about one striking failure of Venezuela’s version of socialism. Her neighbors are now growing food, she reports. They are responding to the nation’s over-reliance on imported foods, never remedied by Bolivarian leaders. In terms of socialist development, food sovereignty typifies the creation of wealth for all, through work. The government apparently lacked the vision or capacity to move beyond the short-term, capitalist way of doing things. It remains stuck in generating wealth almost exclusively through the extraction of oil.