People are confused
about Venezuela, and reasonably so. Why conflicts? Who is protesting? On what scale? What is the government response? What are the deeper issues? Even more, what do the deeper issues and possible responses portend for the future?
Answers vary greatly, even among non-hysterical commentators.
For example, as to why, some astute folks say the protests are an effort by Leonardo Lopez to usurp leadership of the opposition from Henrique Capriles. Others say the protests seek to push the government into repressive measures in order to undermine its support. Still others say the protests seek to remove Maduro and sweep away all aspects of Chavismo.
As to who, some say the battles are orchestrated by Venezuela's rich, others say it is discontent from average folks without prodding. Some say it is wealthy students, others say it is students per se. Some say it is militarily savvy thugs and even Columbian exiles, others say it is kids without portfolio. Some say the country is massively against the government, others say this is a serious violent uprising but is carried out by small numbers with largely elite backgrounds.
As to the government's response, some say they are engaging in harsh repression, others say they are exercising extreme restraint. Some point to deaths and claim government killers, others point to deaths and claim opposition killers. Some call government interference with media dictatorial censorship, others say private papers and TV operate with near total abandon with only minor curtailments temporarily warranted to reduce violence.
To this writer, however, the protests appear to be primarily opposing precisely what is good about Chavismo, in particular income redistribution, dispersal of power, and increasing mass participation. They attract ample average folks with serious criticisms of crime, corruption, inflation, and shortages, as well. The popular concerns .appear to be used, however, by Venezuela's most reactionary elements, perhaps to shift the balance of power in their own movement, but perhaps hoping to create enough havoc to attract international intervention to remove the government. The government, in contrast, appears to be trying to curtail public disruptions without resorting to extensive violence, though with some elements no doubt favoring greater repression. The situation in reality mirrors but also escalates the whole Bolivarian history, wherein the government has sought massive change but without coercion and true to respecting elections, while the opposition has wished to reverse election results and employed any means they could find—including coup, sabotage and overt violence.
Beyond choosing sides on these matters, perhaps it is possible to shed some light on future possibilities and indicate the kind of data that would clarify not only what is occurring, but also what is in the cards for the future.
What problems have generated opposition and especially the forceful disruption of social services? What has motivated small numbers of dissidents to blockade streets, set fires, hurl rocks, and even shoot officials and others? What caused the public emergence of fascistic dissidents like the Retired General who outspokenly urged blockaders to kill citizens by stretching nearly invisible clothes line like wires across roads, which, indeed, decapitated a citizen? What caused the government to utilize police and "riot squads"?
The biggest factor generating opposition is the logic of the Bolivarian Revolution. Chavismo seeks to enlarge public participation, undercut old forms of authority and power, develop workers councils and neighborhood councils and communes, and fundamentally redistribute Venezuelan wealth to Venezuela's poor from its rich. All of this generates fierce opposition from the owning class and often also those high in religious or other hierarchies. Resistance against redistribution and the rest motivates Lopez, Capriles, and the opposition generally, as well as the private media and the owners of private companies and many in their upper strata of employees. Like the rich and well off everywhere—not least in the US—these folks tend to pursue their own interests.
Beyond the opposition's leadership, however, it is not known how many young people dissenting in the streets are also motivated by a rejection of Chavismo's virtues. The youth in the streets appear to be overwhelmingly from well off sectors, often private universities, and when interviewed, complain that they have no future. Does "we have no future" mean they are concerned about crime or inflation? Or does it mean they desire great wealth and power, and realize such privileges are at risk? Given their background, their quite violent and impassioned behavior makes some sense if they are worried about their preferred futures as wealthy and powerful elite citizens—but not if they are merely worried about crime. The good news is that the number of students blocking streets and worse remains relatively low.
Factors which concern a far wider population—including most Chavistas—include corruption, crime, inflation, and shortages. The reason to be angry about these problems is they dramatically diminish the quality of life. But, a large issue is, what are the roots of these problems?
Corruption means, people enriching themselves via illegitimate behavior undertaken at the expense of others. (In this sense, all of capitalist business is corrupt, but let's set that aside.) So where does one see corruption in Venezuela?
The price of milk is subsidized so the poor get ample. That's a good policy but it gets a bit complicated. Say you live reasonably near the border v/ith Brazil. If you produce milk and you export it, or even if you just buy lots of milk at its low subsidized price and smuggle it over the border, there is a killing to be made because you can sell it for way more in Brazil. The temptation is great. The margin is high. There is plenty of excess profit, enough, even, to bribe folks. And the milk supply inside Venezuela drops—even into shortages. The same goes for oil/gas, even more so, say, at the border with Columbia. Worse still, the access to corrupt advantage by exploiting subsidized prices is hugely aggravated by Venezuela's approach to exchange rates for Bolivars and dollars. Suffice it to say that policies aimed at benefitting the poor and stabilizing sensible rather than market-ruled prices inside Venezuela, as a byproduct create avenues for huge financial gains by the corrupt practice of buying with Bolivares inside and selling for dollars outside, and coming back and getting way more Bolivares in exchange than you initially spent—or even by just directly exploiting government largess for travel and the like.
What about crime's causes? First, one might wonder how could the Chavistas have the slightest interest in generating or even just being soft on crime? That is not plausible. Corruption? Some yes, are complicit. But crime, robbery, kidnapping, murder? No. In contrast, the opposition and local police often have a very real interest in increasing levels of crime. First, some engage in it for personal gain. Second, and more important, they want it to flourish so as to create disenchantment and dissent. The largest uptick in crime had to do with Columbian exiles escaping Columbian repression and arriving to operate in Venezuela. The key factor is criminal behavior of the usual sort, but given considerable room to maneuver by opposition-supporting, or criminally bribed, local police.
Shortages have to do with exchange rates and subsidized goods being smuggled out, and with outright sabotage by opposition owners who stockpile output that they don't ship out, literally to create shortages. Again, one can ask, what possible motive would the government have to itself promote shortages? Of course, if a wealthy person feels a shortage that isn't a priority to correct for the government in their high end stores, and realizes that it is caused, in part, by the government subsidizing prices for the poor, this person might see things differently. One important point is that shortages do indeed hit the middle and upper classes hardest partly because those constituencies have no experience of not getting what they want and have no patience for it, and partly because the government is very diligent to ensure that lower income citizens aren't made hungry.
There is, however, another explanation that some offer for shortages—not obstruction and sabotage by owners, not corrupt export and smuggling of products to neighboring countries for profit—but low productivity. Some see this as due to workers in the public sector not fearing for their jobs and, as a result, slacking off. Others see it as workers in those sectors feeling alienated due to their relations not altering dramatically from past alienated ways, and in that mood, they slow down.
Now what about the deeper issues—crime, corruption, inflation, and shortages? What lies behind those? What might the government and the population do on those fronts, and what would the choices auger?
The broad indicators are these. Does a particular policy that seeks to deal with any of these problems—or any other problems, for that matter—improve the conditions of the poor and weak and not the rich and powerful, or vice versa? Does such a policy increase the capacity of the poor and weak to seek further gains and diminish the capacity of the rich and powerful, or vice versa?
Venezuela is still a capitalist country with many institutions and associated constituencies that want to keep it that way but also with a federal government and a great many grassroots and also federal institutions that are seeking change toward a new system. When there are problems—and there are—the question is, are they addressed in a manner that moves Venezuela back toward old repressive relations, or in a manner that moves Venezuela toward liberating new relations?
Vol. 46, No. 48, Jun 8 - 14, 2014