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Is Venezuela burning? No it's not

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Sydney, Australia -- I have had a few people ask me what I think of the recent article by Mike Gonzalez published in Jacobin regarding events in Venezuela ("Is Venezuela burning?").

Putting aside the fact he can't even get the name right of the oil minister (Rafael Ramirez, not Rodriguez), here are three things that are wrong with the article:

1) Gonzalez writes: "It is no secret that behind the façade of unity, there is a struggle for power between extremely wealthy and influential groups within government -- a struggle that began to intensify in the months before Chavez’s death."

If this was no secret, then surely there would be a mountain of evidence to prove this. But Mike Gonzalez offers none. A more serious analysis would indicate the opposite: that despite the narrow election victory by Nicolás Maduro in April 2013, the immediately wave of opposition violence and campaign around "fraud," ongoing economic war against the government, the municipal elections and the most recent events, there has been no visible signs of fractures in the government.

Even serious right-wing analysts (Bloomberg) can see this: "What makes Venezuela’s government so different is its absolute dominance of all the main levers of political power. President Nicolas Maduro’s administration wields unquestionable control over the Supreme Court, the Congress, the military and the oil industry -- the very institutions that could threaten his regime." (via BloombergView)

Add to that the solid support the government still maintains among working-class and poor Venezuelans and you start to see a very different picture to the one Gonzalez paints of a government on the brink of cracking up. In fact, the only people who continually speculate about such internal struggles (apart from Gonzalez and a few other leftists) are the gossip columnists in the right-wing media.

None of this is to deny that there are political differences within the government and Chavismo more generally, which brings me to…

2) "All of this is an expression of an economic crisis vigorously denied by the Maduro government but obvious to everyone else."

Again, it is just plain silliness to claim that the Maduro government is denying economic problems. In fact, one of the key triggers of the recent protests (ignored by Gonzalez) was that the government had precisely begun to take measures to address the economic problems, starting with the imposition of set profit margins and accompanying regulations to open company account books.

But Gonzalez’s article goes further and also invents a crisis that does not exist. Let’s just look at what he says and some of the actual figures:

"2012 had seen inflation rates hovering around fifty percent (officially) and the level has risen inexorably throughout the last year."

Inflation in 2012: 20.1%

Inflation in 2013: 56.2%

That is, it was not around fifty percent in 2012 and it did not rise inexorably from that imaginary figure (even if it clearly did rise substantially in 2013).

"The shortages are explained partly by speculation on the part of capitalists -- just as happened in Chile in 1972 -- and partly by the rising cost of imports, which make up a growing proportion of what is consumed in Venezuela."

Value of imports in 2012: US$47.310 billion

Value of imports in 2013: US$37.802 billion

That is, the value of imports went down. In fact, the value of imports was higher in 2007, 2008 and 2009 compared to 2013.

"Today, those funds [oil wealth] are drying up as Venezuela’s oil income is diverted to paying for increasingly expensive imports."

As I showed above, imports are not more expensive. But it’s also not true that funds are drying up:

Value of exports 2012: US$97.340 billion

I couldn’t find the figure for 2013, but I doubt exports fell by two thirds, which indicates that Venezuela continues have a nice trade surplus.

I could continue to refute almost every other assertion Gonzalez makes (and happy to do so if you want me to). Or point to figures that show despite the “crisis,” poverty rates and unemployment continue to fall, unheard of in any other economic crisis. But the main point is not so much the gross errors Gonzalez makes, but why he does so.

Blame

The reason is because what he wants to demonstrate is that the Venezuelan government is just as responsible for the "economic crisis" as the right-wing opposition. To do so, he has to make up stuff like the government is going bankrupt, oil money is drying up, imports are skyrocketing while production at home has all but disappeared… All the same stuff that the right-wing media says.

This matters because, as the old saying goes, “If you make the wrong diagnosis, you will never apply the right remedy.”

The right wing says what it says in order to prove that the Chavista economic model of state control and redistribution of oil wealth to meet people's needs will inevitable destroy the economy. They are not the only ones saying this. There are some in the government who disagree with key economic policies, hence the political struggles I referred to above.

This is also true more broadly with the Bolivarian Revolution. For example, Roland Denis, who Gonzalez is so fond of, is part of a group within Chavismo that argues much the same line as Gonzalez when it comes to the government’s economic problems. Unlike Gonzalez, they have put forward their alternative economic policies in the Que Hacer? document.

I’ll let you decide just how "left-wing" their economic policies are.

Again, none of this is to say there are not economic problems, but behind this debate filled with dubious statistics and assertions is a more important political debate of what should happen to Venezuela’s oil wealth.

3) "What can save the Bolivarian project, and the hope it inspired in so many, is for the speculators and bureaucrats to be removed, and for popular power to be built, from the ground up, on the basis of a genuine socialism -- participatory, democratic, and exemplary in refusing to reproduce the values and methods of a capitalism which has been unmasked by the revolutionary youth of Greece, Spain and the Middle East."

This is all well and good, but ultimately a motherhood statement devoid of any content. I wonder if Gonzalez agrees with the alternative policies proposed in the Que Hacer? document as a way to refuse to reproduce the values and methods of capitalism? Who knows? All Gonzalez has to say can be summed up in a slogan "One solution: revolution!"

But this is not the only problem with such statements. Pretty much since 2002, leftists like Mike Gonzalez have been saying the same thing: "Venezuela is at a crossroads, only two options, restore old order or deepen the revolution towards socialism."

But after 12 years should we ask ourselves some questions like: isn’t it perhaps possible that out of every crisis, the government has taken measures to deepen the revolution, hence why the Bolivarian Revolution is still going and the old elites are not back in power? Isn't it perhaps true that implementing some kind of war communism in Venezuela (which tends to be what the calls to deepen the revolution amount to) would not be the best course of action? Isn’t it the case that given the current international balance of forces, it is possible for the revolution to continue advancing but that conditions do not exist for Venezuela to implement socialism in one country?

These are serious questions that some of the left continue to paper over, preferring slogans to real action.

 

[This commentary was first published in -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Federico Fuentes is an activist with the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network, a co-author of 'Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism' and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]

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