As widely predicted, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela won reelection handily on May 20th, winning 67.76 percent, 6,157,185 votes of those who turned out, securing a second six-year presidential term. Henri Falcón, the main opposition candidate, received 1,909,172 votes or 21.01 percent.
The election comes after significant victories of progressive forces in both the National Constituent Assembly and regional elections in 2017, and solidifies government power of the socialist-oriented Bolivarian revolutionary process begun in 1998 under the leadership of then-President Hugo Chávez.
Within 24 hours of the results, the Trump administration slapped new sanctions on Venezuela, this time targeting the country’s oil industry, PDVSA and its U.S. operation, CITGO. Washington is intensifying its full-court press on Venezuela, with the U.S.-directed Group of Lima, a coalition of right-wing Latin American governments, also denouncing Maduro’s victory. The New York Times editorial of May 21 openly calls for his ouster.
While Maduro, his party the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and left wing allies such as the Communist Party won easily, the overall number of votes and low turnout reflect the impact of serious economic problems in the country that has tempered enthusiasm among supporters of the Bolivarian revolution.
The pressure for abstention from Venezuelan rightwing and U.S. government also played a significant role, with only 46 percent of the 20 million eligible voters going to the polls May 20.
The opposition is crowing that the abstention rate builds their claim for true leadership of the country. This is patently false. The opposition also got their loyal supporters to abstain from the Constituent Assembly elections in 2017. In that election the socialist, or Chavista, camp received 8,089,320 votes. Further, in his first election in 2013 President Maduro received 7,587,579 votes. On top of all that the May 20 vote total for Maduro was several hundred thousand votes above what the Bolivarian forces received in 2010 when they won the National Assembly elections.
Clearly, then, a key factor in the turnout dropping below 50 percent is some combination of an abstention “protest vote” and demoralization of some subset of the Chavista base in the face of the serious challenges facing the country.
It is also worth putting the broader result in some perspective. For instance, in 2012 President Obama, widely considered quite popular, won only 28 percent of the voting age population. President Trump received roughly 25 percent and was second in the popular vote.
All-in-all the vote totals and percentages represent the fact that despite all odds, the Chavista base is resilient and maintains a strong politically active core that is the strongest single political force in the country. With 24 elections in almost 20 years, the Bolivarian forces have lost only two.
Is Venezuela a failed state?
The principal argument used to discredit the Venezuelan revolution, known by supporters as the “Bolivarian process,” is the idea that Venezuela is a failed state, taking the current economic difficulties and greatly overstating and distorting them. This was the narrative in the weeks leading up the election as well.
The international media has pounded away at themes of Venezuela as an economic basket case and stated that President Maduro only maintains power by giving out food and having strong arm policies. As with most reporting on Venezuela, this is a seriously distorted view.
The main factor to consider here are the historical context of Venezuela’s oil-centric economy. Like many major oil producers Venezuela has traditionally generated and currently generates large sums of money. Before Chávez’s presidency, that money flowed to U.S. and British oil companies and a small Venezuelan elite, while the bulk of the population was relegated to poverty. There was little to no domestic industry and the vast majority of the foods, medicines, building materials and so on were imported. The informal economy heavily dominated domestic employment.
During the Chavista era this has been significantly reversed, with huge portions of the flows from the wealth of the nation being pushed back into social programs. For instance, some 73 percent of the 2017 budget goes towards social programs in areas like housing, health, education and public works. The social commitment continues despite the huge drop in world oil prices.
From 1999 to 2015, GDP increased in Venezuela by 43 percent, the agricultural GDP by 27 percent. In 2015 when shortages in basic goods were reaching the heights, GDP was still actually higher than in 2004. Unemployment sank 62.5 percent between 1999-2015 when it hit its lowest level ever of 6 percent. In just the years 2003-2007, extreme poverty was reduced by 70 percent. The Venezuelan government has also extended health care to the entire population, thanks to a cooperative accord with Cuba and the work of Cuban medical workers. Healthcare is enshrined as a right in the 1999 constitution. It has extensively built up a vastly expanded educational system. It has a massive project to make housing a right as well, one that has created 2 million low-cost homes since just 2011, with a goal of reaching three million by 2019.
Like all oil-producing countries, the Venezuelan economy is highly vulnerable to the rise and fall of oil prices, especially since its income is 95 percent derived from oil sales.
The precipitous drop in oil prices in recent years has been a major factor in the economic crisis, falling from over $100 per barrel in 2008 to an average $37.00 per barrel in 2016.
When one looks, for instance, at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization statistics on undernourishment, dietary energy supply, protein intake, and some others, the curve of the graph clearly reflects this. For instance, the percentage of the population that is undernourished dropped precipitously from 16.9 percent in 2001 to 3.1 percent in 2011. In 2016 that statistic stood at 13 percent.
The FAO keeps statistics on the average dietary energy supply adequacy, the percentage by which one falls below, meets, or exceeds the FAO recommended dietary requirement. In 2002 Venezuela was at 103 percent of the ADESA; by 2011 they had reached 121 percent. As of 2016 the percentage was back down to 104 percent.
These statistics show clearly that access to food was heavily tied to increasing revenues. Given that huge percentages of food in Venezuela was and is imported, the lack of ability to spend on imports has helped intensify the economic crisis.
This is where the role of international actors and local saboteurs becomes even more important. There are numerous examples of the giant corporate importers, Venezuelan and U.S. — Polar, Nestle’s, Proctor & Gamble, many others — that have hoarded large shipments of food and other goods to create critical shortages. At the same time they have exported billions of dollars to western banks. In late 2017 the Belgian financial services company Euroclear essentially hijacked $450 million earmarked for buying food and medicines.
Another crisis is the contraband of subsidized foods and gasoline for the population, provided by the government but stolen en masse by criminal gangs to sell at a profit in neighboring Colombia.
The Trump administration has imposed sanctions that prevent U.S. banks from restructuring Venezuelan debt. This is a regular process that would allow the freeing up of money designated for debt payments for other purposes, like importing food and medicines.
Further, the U.S. has sanctioned a number of top government officials making it difficult for them to oversee things like say, importing food and medicine, because financial companies and other corporations fear being hit with sanctions violations by the United States. The population seems to understand the role sanctions play as respected pollster Datanálisis has noted. According to their surveys, 55.6 percent of the population “strongly disagrees” with U.S. sanctions.
There are also now aggressive moves to attack the oil industry overall. In 2007 Venezuela nationalized the Orinoco oil belt. This led a number of the oil supermajors who were dispossessed to challenge Venezuela in the International Court of Arbitration. Now one of those companies, ConocoPhillips, has seized assets from PDVSA on the island of Curacao that are crucial to PDVSA’s refining capacity, dealing a heavy blow to the industry.
How far this will go is unclear, but there are also potential attempts on the horizon to also seize PDVSA’s oil tankers. This attack on the oil industry is clearly another major attempt to strangle the Venezuelan economy.
The key issue is that Venezuela is not a failed state (and has social indicators and programs that would be the envy of many countries the world over). They are experiencing structural problems that could be almost totally unavoidable, exacerbated by intense interference from the United States, Europe and right-wing Latin American governments. All this is occurring in a context where the government is trying against all odds to maintain an extremely high level of social spending to the benefit of the broad mass of people.
Is it true that the Chavistas are doing nothing?
The real story about what the government and allied forces have been doing, and a key factor in why undoubtedly many were still willing to vote in favor of it on May 20 is, quite different. The government is engaging in a wide range of measures to combat the economic war and Venezuela’s extensive revolutionary grassroots is working alongside them and also developing its own initiatives.
Revolutionaries in Venezuela are intensely focused around the theme of, to borrow a phrase from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, “grasp revolution, promote production.” It is clear to all that the biggest handicap of Venezuela is the oil-dependent import based economy. As Burkinabe revolutionary Thomas Sankara frequently stressed “where is Imperialism? It is the food aid on the plate in front of you.”
All around the nation, revolutionary forces are working to remedy this situation. In Altos de Lídice in Caracas, communal councils in the area have banded together not only to create a commune, but to focus it on some of these key factors. Miguel Padiña, a participant in the project, speaking to journalists from the revolutionary Bolivar and Zamora Current (CRBZ) of the PSUV stated:
“Currently in the productive field we have planted sweet potato, yucca and milky, as the first productive experience, it is designed to benefit around 1,400 families nearby.”
The Frente Francisco de Miranda (FFM), another broad revolutionary current within the PSUV, have developed a production entity known as Ecopatria with six sites across the country so far that are using organic farming to grow vegetables primarily but also the production of “rabbit, pork, goat and sheep meat, and the milking of goats for the manufacture of cheese.”
In Paez, a city in Apure state, the new Mayor who came in last year, José María Romero, found that the Mayor he replaced, who has been arrested for corruption, had been abusing government services to enrich himself and not engage in key productive activities, failing to even collect taxes to fund local services.
That situation is now being turned around. As one revolutionary current reports, “The mayor has 5 thousand 500 million bolivars. In terms of production, this is the great challenge that has already begun to be implemented in specific policies, such as the recent allocation of seeds and inputs for the production of 600 hectares of rice…. Those 600 hectares will be for small and medium producers, the communal city Simón Bolívar, and for the municipality…That step is the first. By 2019 the goal will be 1500 hectares. It is not all, there is also a production plan for yellow corn, rabbits, milk goats, chicken, and urban agriculture.”
The FFM, is also participating — in its own right —in the above mentioned housing campaign that has already delivered 2 million low-cost homes, aiming at 3 million by next year. They have constructed 18,000 homes in partnership with communal councils and the government to source the materials locally. As they explain, there are “more than 400 blocks [concrete-ed.], 243 carpentry and more than 200 communal ironworks, which are active guaranteeing the raw material.”
Further as one of the leaders of the project notes: “It is not just about the block, the rebar and the cement, but to go further, the economic crisis has allowed us to empower the people in the creation of their own production yards, where they can plant and harvest items or supplements to guarantee sovereignty in the food issue.”
For its own part, the government has been developing systems of more centralized distribution in order to circumvent the corporations’ hoarding practices and black market corruption networks. The centerpiece of this is the CLAP (Local Committees for Supply and Production) program that delivers food and other basic good directly to people in conjunction with the “popular power.” They are communal councils, communes and varying conglomerations set up by revolutionary currents within communities. CLAP is currently delivering 60,000 tons of goods to 6 million people, twice a month.
They have also moved to use the digital economy to help improve these measures. The government created an electronic card system (“Card of the Fatherland”) by which people can receive bonuses, social security and sometimes wages. It is a system of electronic monitoring that ensures the delivery of the goods to people who need them, rather than being disrupted.
While it is still in a developing form, one can see the clear development — with the “top-down” and the “bottom-up” growing together — of a centralized system of production and distribution of basic goods for the broad mass of the population.
Is popular power still alive?
In addition, many, if not all, of the voters in the Bolivarian movement are undoubtedly determined to defend the tremendous flowering of organs of popular government at a range of levels and intertwined in various ways with the more official government structure. One major misconception is that the “popular power” is dead.
There are roughly 46 thousand registered communal councils and roughly 1,600 communes. In his book “Building the Commune,” author George Ciccariello-Maher gives a flavor of this process:
“Sometimes a commune is sixty women gathered in a room to debate local road construction, berating political leaders in the harshest of terms. Other times it’s a textile collective gathering with local residents to decide what the community needs and how best to produce it. Sometimes it’s a handful of young men on motorcycles hammering out a gang truce, or others broadcasting on a collective radio or TV station. Often it’s hundreds of rural families growing plantains, cacao, coffee or corn while attempting to rebuild their ancestral dignity on the land through a new, collective form.”
These popular organs, particularly communal councils and communes, are in fact the mainstay of the Bolivarian process, its backbone really, and many of them, despite being perceptive critics of aspects of government policy, are the first to call to rally for the revolution at the ballot box behind the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and other members of the Chavista coalition like the Communist Party.
Aristóbulo Instúriz, minister for the communes in the President’s cabinet and a major figure in the Constituent Assembly, stated earlier this year: “Currently we have 1,883 registered communes in Venezuela and by the end of January we must reach 2,000 new ones.” He went on to note that they need to reach 3,000 this year and link them to the new communal bank. The bank is designed to funnel funds directly to communes to promote production.
These plans include: “The allotment of substantial resources to the Commune El Maizál for creation of a food production factory, to the Agua Sagrada Terepaíma Commune for an irrigation system and to the Juan Sabas Peralta Commune to purchase equipment to maintain agricultural roads.”
Angel Prado is one of the leaders of the Socialist Commune El Maizál. The El Maizál Commune is made up of 22 communal councils across Portuguesa and Lara states organized around forms of direct democracy, with a number of impressive gains to its credit such as producing “4,000 tons of corn annually and has communal enterprises producing beef, pork, cheese as well as managing gas distribution.”
Prado, who has had well publicized disagreements with the government despite firmly backing Maduro’s re-election, noted about the tasks ahead:
“[W]e have a project that is to create the communal city, I believe that this is a debt to Chávez. We are dead set on this idea, and then we want to go to a federation of communes, which is the union of several communal cities and thus build the communal state…We see ourselves in the medium-term being part of a great collective leadership that assumes the responsibility of taking the reins of the communal city. That includes our own fight against crime, an entire industrial, productive system, a university. We have a project to free our land. It is not about being independent. It is what is in the [2013-2019] Homeland Plan.”
The road ahead
There are a range of contradictions and qualifications that could be introduced into all of the above. What is crucial, however, is that Venezuela is being targeted because the majority of people, most of them poor and working people, dared to envision another world than the brutal capitalist reality so many of us live in.
Already, post election, many revolutionary groups are already putting out interesting meditations on the road forward.
They are engaged in a great process, and a great debate among themselves about how to build a society that stresses the needs of the people over the needs of private profit. We will repeat here something we have said before:
“For revolutionaries around the world then, the tasks could not be clearer. A people decided in 1998 to break decisively with neo-liberal capitalism, and to share their wealth more equally. They also decided to institutionalize and expand massively efforts at communal, popular power. In that time living standards have increased, poverty has decreased, healthcare, education and housing are formally rights and policy is aimed at achieving that. Indigenous communities and Afro-Venezuelans have been empowered to reclaim their culture and heritage and push back against the legacies of genocide and slavery. In effect, Venezuela has launched a worldwide discussion on socialism, what the next round of attempts to build socialism can and should look like, and what they can borrow from the past and must invent for the future.
“If the Bolivarian movement is derailed, or overthrown, all that goes away. The cause of people being able to collectively decide how to best use their resources and talents for their own benefits will be irreparably set back. There are challenges and contradictions to discuss for sure, but first and foremost the Bolivarian revolution must be defended.”