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The Tragedy of Venezuela, Michael Roberts: How Should the Left Respond?

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The Morning Star reports,

LABOUR MP Graham Jones declares that he would have “gone further” than shadow foreign minister Liz McInnes’s criticism of Venezuela.

McInnes had urged “the government of Venezuela to recognise its responsibilities to protect human rights, free speech and the rule of law.”

She demanded a response to concerns expressed by the “international community” about supposed authoritarianism and very real hardships affecting Venezuela’s people. This is presumably the US-led “international community” rather than regional states such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba that have declared solidarity with Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution.

Jones, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Venezuela, advised Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that he must make a statement “at some point” and told frontbencher Chris Williamson that “he’s backing the wrong side.”

Several Labour MPs, including Corbyn, and many unions support the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, but Jones wants “everybody in the Labour Party (to) condemn the Venezuelan regime” for not looking after its citizens. His colleague Angela Smith asks Corbyn to condemn President Nicolas Maduro’s government as “a very serious threat to democracy in that country.”

If Williamson is on the “wrong side,” it follows that Foreign Minister Sir Alan Duncan, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable and Tory MP Mark Pritchard, who all attacked Corbyn for his silence, while on holiday, over Venezuela, must be on the right side.

What would the Morning Star say about this?

Michael Roberts Blog

Blogging from a marxist economist

The tragedy of Venezuela

As the Maduro regime tries to impose its new Constituent Assembly as a rival or replacement of the existing Venezuelan Congress and arrests the leaders of the pro-capitalist opposition, the dire economic and social situation in the country continues to worsen.

According to the IMF, Venezuela’s GDP in 2017 is 35% below 2013 levels, or 40% in per capita terms. That is a significantly sharper contraction than during the 1929-1933 Great Depression in the US, when US GDP is estimated to have fallen 28%. It is slightly bigger than the decline in Russia (1990-1994), Cuba (1989-1993), and Albania (1989-1993), but smaller than that experienced by other former Soviet States at the time of transition, such as Georgia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Ukraine, or war-torn countries such as Liberia (1993), Libya (2011), Rwanda (1994), Iran (1981), and, most recently, South Sudan.

So, on this measure, according to Ricardo Haussman, former chief economist of Inter-American Development Bank, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the US, Western Europe or the rest of Latin America.

Back in 2013, I warned that the achievements of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ under Chavez were seriously under threat.  Chavez had improved the conditions of the poorest with increased wages, social services and reduced inequality.  But these improvements were only possible within the confines of capitalist economy by using the revenues of oil exports at a time of very high global oil prices.  But oil prices started to mark time and have virtually halved in the last two years.

Oil exports fell by $2,200 per capita from 2012 to 2016, of which $1,500 was due to the decline in oil prices.  The Maduro government started to rack up huge foreign debts to try and sustain living standards.  Venezuela is now the world’s most indebted country. No country has a larger public external debt as a share of GDP or of exports, or faces higher debt service as a share of exports.


The minimum wage – which in Venezuela is also the income of the median worker, owing to the large share of minimum-wage earners – declined by 75% (in constant prices) from May 2012 to May 2017.  Measured in the cheapest available calorie, the minimum wage declined from 52,854 calories per day to just 7,005 during the same period, a decline of 86.7% and insufficient to feed a family of five, assuming that all the income is spent to buy the cheapest calorie. With their minimum wage, Venezuelans could buy less than a fifth of the food that traditionally poorer Colombians could buy with theirs.

Income poverty increased from 48% in 2014 to 82% in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Venezuela’s three most prestigious universities. The same study found that 74% of Venezuelans involuntarily lost an average of 8.6 kilos (19 pounds) in weight. The Venezuelan Health Observatory reports a ten-fold increase in in-patient mortality and a 100-fold increase in the death of newborns in hospitals in 2016.


Before Chavez, most Venezuelans were desperately poor after a series of right-wing capitalist governments.  But now once again, under Maduro, this is the situation for the poor and the majority of the Venezuelan working class.  No wonder support for the Maduro government has subsided while the forces of reaction grow stronger.  While the majority struggle, many at the top of the Maduro government are as comfortable as the Venezuelan capitalists and their supporters who are trying to bring the government down.

The Maduro government is now relying increasingly not on the support of the working class but on the armed forces.  And the government looks after them well.  The military can buy in exclusive markets (for example, on military bases), have privileged access to loans and purchases of cars and departments, and have received substantial salary increases. They have also won lucrative contracts, exploiting exchange controls and subsidies, for example, selling cheap gasoline purchased in neighboring countries with huge profits.

As Rolando Asturita has pointed out in a series of posts.  the army has strong direct economic power, since the FANB directs and controls a whole series of companies: the bank BANFANB; AGROFANB, for agriculture; EMILTRA, transport; EMCOFANB, company communications systems of the FANB; TVFANB, an open digital TV channel; TECNOMAR, a mixed military technology projects company; FIMNP, an investment fund; CONSTRUFANB, constructor; CANCORFANB, Bolivarian Mixed Company; Water Tiuna, water bottling plant; And then there is CAMINPEG, the anonymous military, mining and oil and gas company.

Many of the Maduro government elite have used the economic crisis to their own personal benefit.  They have bought up government debt for rich returns, while at the same time ensuring that there is no default, all at the expense of falling living standards for the people who must pay this debt through taxes and foregone oil revenues.  Foreign exchange earmarked for the payment of foreign debt has been offset by the reduction of imports of food, medicines or essential industrial inputs.

Robert’s concludes,

What went wrong with the laudable aims of Chavismo? Could this tragedy been avoided? Well, yes, if the Chavista revolution had not stopped at less than halfway, leaving the economy still predominantly in the control of capital.  Instead, the Chavista and Maduro governments relied on high oil prices and huge oil reserves to reduce poverty, while failing to transform the economy through productive investment, state ownership and planning.  Between 1999 and 2012 the state had an income of $383bn from oil, due not only to the improvement in prices, but also to the increase in the royalties paid by the transnationals. However, this income was not used transform the productive sectors of the economy.  Yes, some was used to improve the living standards of the most impoverished masses. But there was no plan for investment and growth.  Venezuelan capital was allowed to get on with it – or not as the case may be.  Indeed, the share of industry in GDP fell from 18% of GDP in 1998 to 14% in 2012.

Now the right-wing ‘free marketeers’ tell us that this shows ‘socialism’ does not work and there is no escape from the rigors of the market.  But the history of the last ten years is not the failure of ‘socialism’ or planning, it is the failure to end the control of capital in a weak (an increasingly isolated) capitalist country with apparently only one asset, oil.  There was no investment in the people, their skills, no development of new industries and the raising of technology – that was left to the capitalist sector.  Contrast that with ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, albeit in the largest country and now economy in the world.

Just over a year ago, I argued in a post that, to save the aims of Chavismo, “it is probably too late, as the forces of reaction gain ground every day in the country.  It seems that we await only the decision of the army to change sides and oust the Chavistas.” 

 Left critics of Maduro:

Criticizing Venezuela from the Left. ANDRÉS FELIPE PARRA 30 May 2017  Open Democracy. 

Venezuela, increasingly, resembles today’s liberal democracies, where institutions are becoming formal appendages of the power of the markets and securitization. Español

Venezuela and the Left.


The human rights situation in Venezuela is getting worse. Fortunately, some on the Left are deciding to speak up. Español 

Just after the Sunday vote this declaration came out from a small Trotskyist group.

¡Contra el fraude constituyente redoblemos la movilización! ¡Fuera Maduro!  (Unidad Internacional de los Trabajadores – Cuarta Internacional).

El gobierno hambreador, corrupto y represivo de Maduro, consumó el pasado domingo un gigantesco fraude en alianza con el CNE.

Au Venezuela, ce sont les travailleurs qui ont le droit de dire à Maduro : dégage !  30th of July.

Against Venezuela’s authoritarian turn . May 3, 2017

On May 1, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro signed an executive order to form a Constituent National Assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. Predictably, Maduro’s right-wing opponents howled about a lack of respect for democratic rights and procedures, which they themselves routinely violated in seeking the overthrow of Chavismo.

But many on the left see the latest move by the ruling Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV) to consolidate its power as a dangerous further lurch toward authoritarianism. Here, we reprint a March 29 statement by Marea Socialista , which joined the PSUV when it was founded in 2007 by the late President Huge Chávez, but left it in 2015 in protest of the course set for the party by Maduro. The statement by Marea Socialista’s National Operations Team was first published in Spanish at the Aporrea website and appears here in a version edited by Todd Chretien of the English translation published at the Portal de la Izquierda website.

How should the Labour Party respond?

Two Views:

Jeremy Corbyn will be on the right side of history – if he condemns Venezuela’s left-wing leaders. James Bloodworth. New Statesman

The country appears to be marching toward full-blown dictatorship.

The demand that a politician “condemn” something is usually an exercise in political performance. It typically has no measurable impact beyond a minor point scoring exercise. But calls for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to condemn the government in Venezuela are different in one important respect.

On seemingly good terms with the government of Nicolás Maduro, Corbyn’s words may actually carry weight in Venezuela. This is a matter of some importance when the country appears to be marching toward full-blown dictatorship.


Demanding an apology from those who did not see the true nature of the Venezuelan government earlier on would be self-indulgent. It is also, for many, wildly hypocritical. Britain sells weapons to Saudi Arabia after all, another brutal dictatorship. Those getting on their high horse about Venezuela include admirers of Margaret Thatcher, whose relationship with Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet makes Corbyn’s relationship with the Venezuelan leadership look decidedly frosty.

Yet Corbyn, who engaged in a cordial conversation with President Maduro over the telephone in 2014 for the television show En Contacto con Maduro, arguably has it in his power to influence developments in Venezuela. However small his influence might be, he ought to be calling publicly for the release of the political prisoners López and Ledezma.

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn like to say that their man has always come down on the “right side of history”. If this is to mean anything at all, then it should also mean speaking out against the abuses committed by one’s own side.

 A different approach is offered here:

Written by Andrew Coates

August 4, 2017 at 12:02 pm

3 Responses

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  1. ‘The point is, as James Bloodworth says, that we need to be “speaking out against the abuses committed by one’s own side.”’

    No, the point is that Maduro and his party is not “our own side”. Our side are the workers, independent trade unions and small farmers of Venezuela struggling against collapsing living standards. Even Chavez was not part of a democratic socialist movement. The party he set up, the PSUV, was a top down bureaucratic affair as you would expect from a military leader turned President. Maduro has given it a greater authoritarian role along with the military.

    That is not to deny the very real gains made by the poorer sections of the population under Chavez, in terms of health, new homes, rising living standards etc that were undeniable and documented by the UN. All such measures were obviously welcomed by the left internationally. But supporting progressive reforms and giving blanket support to a Chavez government are two very different things.

    The right want to elide this period with the collapse under Maduro and growing authoritarianism, they use it as a stick to beat Corbyn and the left with. They are helped in this by the uncritical cheerleading that characterised the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign. It was not only the Morning Star/CPB confusing “anti-imperialism” with becoming uncritical fellow travellers of such regimes but also sections of the Labour Left around Corbyn – not to mention the “Trotskyists” of Socialist Appeal whose fawning over Chavez and his government was second to none.

    The lesson is critical thinking, no saviours from on high, and a resolute orientation to democratic socialism from below. And that applies as much to us in the Labour Party as it does internationally.


    August 5, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    • Chávez’s Trotskyist cheerleaders. Pablo Velasco. 2013

      “Socialist Appeal launched the “Hands off Venezuela” (HOV) campaign, which went beyond the laudable goal of opposing US intervention in Venezuela and tried to put a socialist gloss on Chávez’s bourgeois and Bonapartist politics. The HOV statement requires signatories to agree to the “defence of the revolutionary process” in Venezuela, and its website is subtitled “in solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution”.

      Woods’ book The Venezuelan Revolution (2005) deserves its place in the catalogue of infamy, providing a “Marxist” rationale for dissolving working-class politics in Venezuela into Chavismo.

      The book recounts a relationship instigated by Chávez to find international apologists. Chávez flattered Woods by reading extracts from his book Reason in Revolt on his TV show “Alo Presidente” on 21 March 2004. He also talked about the HOV campaign for 20 minutes. At the filming of “Alo Presidente” on Sunday 18 April 2004, Woods was “placed in the front row, in a prominent position immediately opposite the president”. He was also “received by President Chávez for a private audience that lasted well over an hour”.

      Chávez apparently flattered Woods on camera, reading from another book and saying, not without a touch of irony, that “he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it”. The website report coos that, “In the course of the programme, Hugo Chávez mentioned Alan at least three times” and “has given his personal support to the publishing of the Venezuelan edition of Reason in Revolt”.

      Woods’ own account of his visit provides Chávez with an unqualified endorsement. He says: “Hugo Chávez for the first time gave the poor and downtrodden a voice and some hope.” Woods swoons: “From my limited contacts with Hugo Chávez, I am firmly convinced of his personal honesty, courage and dedication to the cause of the masses, the oppressed and exploited.”

      Chávez apparently told Woods that he didn’t consider himself a Marxist “because I have not read enough Marxist books”. To this Woods wrote: “From this conversation I had the distinct impression that Hugo Chávez was looking for ideas, and that he was genuinely interested in the ideas of Marxism and anxious to learn.” He finishes his report by saying: “I believe that a growing number in the Bolivarian movement are looking for the ideas of Marxism. I am sure that this applies to many of its leaders. And Hugo Chávez? He told me that he is not a Marxist because he had not read enough Marxist books. But he is reading them now.”

      Woods provided a “Marxist” capitulation for the “Bolivarian revolution” in two long essays: “Marxism and the Venezuelan Revolution” and “Theses on revolution and counterrevolution in Venezuela”, both written after his visit in 2004.

      Woods offered an interpretation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to justify turning Chávez into a (unconscious) socialist revolutionary. He wrote that socialist revolutions normally require a Marxist party to be victorious – but, since this is absent today, “all sorts of peculiar variants are possible”. He made it clear that Chávez is such a peculiar locum: “In the absence of a mass revolutionary Marxist party the forces of revolution have gathered around Chávez and the Bolivarian Movement.”

      Woods spread the most ridiculous illusions about the peaceful road to socialism. He wrote that, in Venezuela in April 2002, “it would have been possible to carry out a peaceful transformation of society after the collapse of the coup”. He added that a peaceful transformation was also possible after the bosses’ lockout in 2002-2003. He followed his mentor Ted Grant, who argued for similar forms of substitutionism and peaceful overturn in Portugal in 1974, adding for good measure that “the lower officer caste becomes – for a period – the unconscious agent of history”. Grant also saw the “proletarian Bonapartism” of the Stalinist states as progressive against capitalism, while Woods misread Bonapartism in Venezuela for a genuine workers’ movement.

      Woods wrote that the big industries must be nationalised, but insisted this “can be done by introducing emergency legislation through the congress” – a version of the old “enabling act in parliament” that Militant used to preach in Britain as the key step to building socialism. He added that an appeal should be made to workers to introduce workers’ control to “ensure a peaceful and orderly transition to a planned economy”. Woods wrote that the masses must “purge” the state. He believed in 2004 that the Chávez government had carried out a partial purge — but “a serious purge can only be carried from below”.


      Andrew Coates

      August 5, 2017 at 4:52 pm

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