Does socialism exist in Venezuela?

Commentators on both the right and left of capitalist politics claim that socialism exists in Venezuela. The right gratefully accepts the Maduro regime’s claim to be socialist, pointing to its crackdown on opponents, its increasingly poor economic position and the large numbers of people fleeing to other countries to try and escape poverty and violence. These critics attribute this to the way in which ‘socialist’ countries are run and see the material hardship and lack of democracy as an inevitable consequence of this. Many on the left also see Venezuela as ‘socialist’ but regard this as a reason to rejoice, attributing its troubles not to the way it’s governed but to the fact that the capitalist world outside, in particular the United States, has used all means possible to bring it down, starving it of resources and fomenting discontent among its population.

Where does the truth lie? Well, it’s common for the political right to use ‘socialist’ as a swear word for governments that exercise direct state control over the economy, especially if those governments are intolerant of opposition or call themselves ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’. Obvious examples of this are China and Cuba and, in former times, the Soviet Union. As for the left, they are frequently favourable to such regimes on the grounds that their ownership of wealth is not monopolised by a very small number of individuals or companies, as in the openly capitalist West. This is the case even though a small number of powerful people – the political leaders – control the economy and often everything else, and most people remain relatively poor in a kind of ‘equality of poverty’.

From Chavez to Maduro

But what about Venezuela? In 1999 Hugo Chavez, the predecessor to the current president Nicolas Maduro, initiated a policy, which he called the Bolivarian Revolution, of controlling the key elements of the economy, in particular the country’s vast oil resources, and bringing in social reforms, all of which had the effect of making the average worker in the country better off and more content with their lot – very much like the nationalising Labour government in Britain after the Second World War and Allende in Chile before he was deposed in 1973. The measures Chavez brought in, which also included state expropriation of a number of private corporations and trade agreements with various countries such as China and Cuba, were considered by his supporters to be socialism taking over from capitalism, so-called Socialism of the XXI Century, even if what they were in the real world was private capitalism (or at least some of it) being replaced by state capitalism.

But even before Chavez died in 2013 the Venezuelan economy had begun to take a downturn, owing to a drop in the world oil price and US embargos and sanctions and to the fact that, whatever name was given to the system in Venezuela, production there still remained geared to the market, as it is in state capitalism as well as private capitalism. Things then only got worse when Maduro, who had been Chavez’s vice-president, took over, and since then the economy has contracted by around 70 percent. As the crisis escalated, the US sought to re-establish the strong influence it had had in pre-Chavez Venezuela by strengthening economic sanctions, blocking Venezuela’s oil exports, and encouraging opposition forces in the country. But Maduro’s real problem was the same one faced by all governments that attempt to keep the buying and selling system of capitalism on an even keel – the fact that the system has a mind of its own. Governments cannot control the crises that periodically and naturally accompany it. Maduro’s attempts to deal with this consisted of practices like increasing the money supply (thereby causing inflation) and cracking down, often severely, on those who opposed his way of running things. Many of those who have criticised or opposed him have been killed, tortured or abducted, with around 300 currently detained, according to Amnesty International, for supposed political crimes.

Fair elections?

All this has brought both fear and severe economic hardship to many of those who had previously supported Chavez. The acute shortages of basic goods in particular have caused Maduro’s support to plummet and as many as 7 million workers (in a population of around 30 million) to leave the country in the simple hope of finding a living – or just food and drink – elsewhere, mainly Columbia and Peru, or if they can get in, the United States. This constitutes the largest migrant crisis in the world at this moment with the number of refugees greater than from Syria or Ukraine.

People collecting water released through a roadside pipe during a water shortage in the capital, Caracas, in 2019. SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Venezuelans who have remained and have dared to protest are treated harshly as a matter of routine and there are even signs that Maduro no longer has the full support of his military and has turned to mafia-type groups to shore up his position. Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, despite the country still having the political trappings of democracy, its upcoming election, scheduled to take place next month (28 July), is unlikely to be ‘free and fair’. Already the previous 2018 election was a manifestly rigged affair with two of the most popular candidates prevented from running. And things are certainly no more ‘democratic’ now. In January of this year, the leader of the opposition and a clear favourite in the polls, María Corina Machada, was banned from holding office for 15 years. In February, a prominent lawyer known for exposing corruption in the army, Rocio San Miguel, was arrested and charged with ‘treason, conspiracy and terrorism’ for her alleged role in a supposed plot to assassinate Maduro. The following month, Ronald Ojeda, a former lieutenant in Venezuela’s military who had protested against the Maduro government on social media was found dead in Chile ten days after he had gone missing. He had previously been seen on social media wearing a t-shirt with ‘freedom’ written on the collar and prison bars drawn on the map of Venezuela.

Not socialism

So, given the desperate measures Maduro is taking, he will probably be the ‘winner’ in next month’s election. But, given the piteous state of the country, the question will be how long he can hold on after that. As one commentator has pointed out, the sort of ‘elected dictator’ Maduro is can, even if highly unpopular, be difficult to dislodge. But whether Maduro hangs on or not, what happens in Venezuela will not be socialism or anything to do with the real meaning or content of the word. That is clearly the case, since socialism is a moneyless, stateless system of society with free access to all goods and services based on voluntary cooperation and economic equality. And it will come through an immense majority of workers in all the industrialised countries developing socialist understanding and organising to win and control political power.

In the modern world, anything other than that is a form of capitalism, whether presided over by an all-powerful state or with the market having free rein. In the case of Venezuela, if Maduro continues to prevail there, it will continue to have the repressive state capitalist regime of the kind that often poses as socialism but does so fraudulently and has as its hallmark the poverty and inequality that make it easy for the political right to say that socialism is an abject failure and for left-wing supporters of Venezuela to blame the US for stifling a valiant socialist experiment.

If Maduro finally goes, what we will have, though it could be something less repressive, is by no means certain to be a lot better in terms of improving the lot of the majority of the Venezuelan people. The country may become what other neighbouring states already are, so-called ‘mixed’ economies with part-state ownership and control and part-private ownership. But, as elsewhere in Latin America and the rest of the world at present, it will be a population divided into two classes, a small minority who own and control the vast majority of the wealth and do not need to work for their comfortable and often luxurious existence, and a vast majority who have to work for a wage or salary to survive, have limited freedom of choice and lack of control over their lives, continuing to be at the mercy of the regular crises and ups and downs of the system – war, recession and constant reorganisation. This is an inevitable consequence of capitalism’s never-ending quest to produce more and to produce more cheaply and more profitably. Whether this takes place in Venezuela, or any other part of the world, it has nothing to do with socialism. None of it will change either until Venezuelans and working people everywhere have ceased to put their faith in governments and charismatic politicians, whatever claims and promises they make.



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