[Marxism] The Constituent Assembly: Venezuelan Thermidor?

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at gmail.com
Tue Aug 15 01:51:08 MDT 2017


At the outset, I should explain that for many years I did not try to 
follow the Venezuelan Revolution closely, but in the last couple of 
years I have been increasingly forced to do so.

That because I am the producer and co-host of the program "Hablemos con 
Teodoro." It is a daily 2-hour Spanish-language news, analysis and 
call-in show. Our station is Radio Información, a progressive and now 
internet-only service organized by people from the immigrant rights 
movement (see the footnote for too much information about us).

For some time I have been disturbed by the seeming direction of the 
Venezuelan process under President Nicolás Maduro. Obviously Venezuela 
faces imperialist hostility and subversion as well as the revanchism of 
traditional ruling class figures and families (Capriles, etc.) who 
dominate the "opposition" and quite obviously look to imperialist 
backing to fulfill their dreams of a return to yesterday's Venezuela.

After becoming president in 2013, Maduro had at least formally abided by 
Chavez's Bolivarian Constitution for a couple of years, but since last 
year, after losing (and very badly) the National Assembly elections at 
the end of 2005, his government has defied constitutional provisions by 
refusing to accept the authority of the resulting legislature, refusing 
to hold a recall referendum on his mandate, packing the national 
Electoral Commission, etc.

(But note that the opposition and its National Assembly majority are 
also partly to blame. It was quick to abandon the ground of defending 
the Chavista constitution --especially the recall referendum--, turning 
instead to will of the wisp nostrums like that Maduro by his actions had 
abandoned the presidency.)

This spring, the Maduro administration adopted an all-but-explicit 
anti-constitutional course, with the Supreme Court proclaiming itself, 
formally, on its own initiative, the national legislature. It was 
quickly forced to abandon the usurpation by very widespread 
denunciations including from within the government, given voice above 
all by the Attorney General.

However this was quickly followed by Maduro calling a Constituent Assembly.

Contrary to what the constitution seems to require, and the precedent 
set by Chávez, the people did not have a chance to vote on whether or 
not to establish this body. The election rules set by the government 
departed from tradition and normal representative, bourgeois-democratic 
norms, especially one person, one vote.

Government candidates ran without opposition. Even so, the company that 
operated the voting machines announced a discrepancy of at least one 
million votes between machine readings and official results claiming a 
turnout of seven million, close to or a little more than 50% of those 
registered.

Once elected, in its first sessions last week, the Assembly proclaimed 
itself the Supreme governmental  body and decreed the 
extra-constitutional removal of the Attorney General and the lone 
opposition member of the electoral council. It announced that all bodies 
and officials were subject to its decisions on functions and 
composition. And to underline its authority, Maduro formally placed his 
position as president in the hands of the Assembly, which then in what 
it called a legitimate exercise of its paramount authority, ratified him 
in his post.

This is clearly a dictatorship, using that word not as a vulgar insult 
against a government one doesn't like, but a *regime* where the 
authorities are not restrained or bound by any previously existing 
norms. And *regime* is used here not in the common "objective" 
journalist sense of "a government we don't like but won't honestly and 
simply say so" but a form of government beyond any one administration. 
(So, for example, there was no change in regime between Bush and Obama 
or Obama and Trump.)

Why do I use these terms? Because what happened in Venezuela last week 
registers a formal, qualitative change in the country's governmental 
regime: from the one established under the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution 
to a dictatorship of the Constituent Assembly.

In my view, this is unquestionable even if you consider the assembly to 
have been quite properly established in a democratic or revolutionary 
way. In other words, there can be such a thing as a "revolutionary" or 
"democratic" dictatorship. Although I do not see where that is the case 
here.

The fact that Maduro surrendered his authority to the assembly as a 
president elected by a popular vote and is now president thanks to 
authority newly invested in him by the assembly (even if phrased as 
"ratification" in the office) could not make the change in regime more 
blatant.

Which raises the question, what is the significance of this change?

I am finding myself increasingly pushed to consider that this might mark 
a Thermidor resulting from an increasingly deteriorating situation.

*    *    *
The left wing and pro-revolution web site aporrea.org has had a series 
of articles raising questions and even sounding the alarm, including 
this interview analyzing the protest movement and government repression 
published a couple of days ago: https://www.aporrea.org/ddhh/n312836.html.

Among other things the interviewee presents detailed figures on the 
deaths in connection with the demonstrations since the beginning of 
April, saying the majority of them where events are documented those 
responsible were government forces and allegedly pro-government 
motorcycle-mounted flying squads. He takes into account reports of 
demonstrators attacking and burning Chavistas alive, pointing to two 
documented cases. But including other incidents of attacks on Chavistas, 
he concludes that the big majority of killings where the attacker is 
clearly documented were done by government forces. He also documents 
that the majority of the known victims were students or young workers, 
not scions of the oligarchy.

This did not really surprise me, as from the coverage and talking to 
people who had been there I had come to the conclusion that this is 
largely a student and younger millennial movement of the relatively 
better-off layers of the working people who grew up and came of age 
under Chavez, and not mostly of the upper crust. But also not of the 
poorest marginalized layers.

It seems pretty clear that there have been several, perhaps many 
instances of actions staged in such a way as to be deliberately 
provocative or even leading inevitably to violent clashes, such as 
surrounding and blockading a military barracks. A minority of 
demonstrators often come prepared for battle, and some are armed with 
Molotov cocktails and even tear gas canisters: there are some video 
clips showing this pretty clearly.

But also I have been especially struck by the evidence suggesting that 
the oligarchic opposition set this into motion and periodically throws 
gasoline on the fire, but does not take responsibility for the movement 
nor offer it leadership despite its semi-insurrectionary character. Thus 
it is very rare to see in the press interviews with opposition leaders 
at the protests or with them giving eyewitness accounts.

I've very much gotten the impression that the oligarchic opposition of 
the MUD is perfectly happy to have maximum turbulence and violence for 
international propaganda purposes but that they are absolutely unwilling 
to stick out their own necks in doing the next logical thing: launch a 
more-or-less coordinated uprising seeking to gain the support of the 
poorer layers of the population that are suffering terribly from the 
economic crisis and split the army and perhaps the police.

Although they do not say this in so many big words, the impression one 
gets is that they are definitely hoping for a deus ex machina from 
abroad to put them in power, and in the meantime are constantly 
jockeying among themselves to be in the best position to come out on top 
in such an eventuality.

And as part of that, now they've undermined the protest movement by 
deciding to take part in regional elections, despite having boycotted 
the national voting for Constituent Assembly candidates. It's all about 
preserving "political spaces" and "the small elements of democracy that 
still exist," in other words, opposition governors and mayors want to 
stay in office to have the best opportunity to jump into higher 
positions when salvation from abroad arrives.

In other words, their "intransigent" and "to the ultimate consequences" 
resistance is a cowardly sham. The press projects them as freedom 
fighters, but they are definitely not "give me liberty or give me death" 
types.

Not all of this is reflected in the interview I referred to but what it 
says is consistent with the picture I have.

*  *  *

The part of the interview that truly shocked me was  the homicide 
figures for 2016, which the interviewee claimed came from the attorney 
general. It said the intentional homicide rate was 70 (per 100,000 
population), which is well into what I would generally consider failed 
state territory, and which he said was the second highest in the world 
(for a country not formally at war).

But even more astounding to me was that more than 20% of the homicides 
had been carried out by government agents and they have primarily taken 
as victims young people in the poorest communities.

I was so surprised by the figures that I had a hard time believing them, 
but an internet search quickly revealed that the attorney general really 
had released these figures. This is an AFP story on the revelation: 
elfaro.net/es/201703/internacionales/20196/Venezuela-cerr%C3%B3-con-70-homicidios-por-cada-100000-.

There were 21,752 homicides, of which 4,667 were committed by members of 
police or other government security bodies. In the United States there 
are about 1,000 police killings compiled on the crowd-sourced 
killedbypolice.net.  But a comparable figure to the Venezuelan one in 
the United States would be around 45,000. This suggests a radical 
divorce between the state's repressive forces and the popular, mobilized 
masses  which they are supposed to be based on and defend in a popular 
revolution.

And the interview presents a broader picture presented of Maduro playing 
the "law and order" card as do bourgeois politicians when they, too, 
have no program to confront grave problems facing society.

Other very negative signs include government concessions to imperialist 
firms for extractive industries; the growing mortgaging of future oil 
exports to pay for current loans; a total decline by the end of this 
year in the Gross Domestic Product since 2013 of 32% (one third! or as 
close to as makes no difference); a huge jump in unemployment; a 
hyper-inflation of more than 200% a month and a catastrophic collapse in 
the standard of living in the population.

A lot of this was prompted by the decline in the price of oil but it had 
tremendous impact due to unsustainable economic policies of price 
controls and subsidies, compounded by the inevitable corruption such 
policies engender.

They are proving untenable without the oil bonanza, which I believe also 
shows this use of the surplus oil income was not the best. And at least 
the point that much more oil income should have been invested in 
developing the country's productive machinery is very widely accepted by 
Chavistas.

The government constantly blames an imperialist-oligarchic economic war 
and I do not doubt it is taking place. But even if it were not, the 
economy would still be displaying the same tendencies. You cannot sell 
gasoline for a few cents a gallon and NOT expect it to go across the 
street where it can be sold for a few dollars a gallon.

And you cannot expect to have an "official" exchange rate of something 
like 10 Bolivars to the dollar, a "parallel" rate of about 3,000, and a 
Black market rate of 12,000 and NOT have people taking official and 
parallel rate dollars and merchandise to the black market.

You can have --for a time-- successful price and currency controls, 
especially if, for example, you are a small island nation like Cuba 
surrounded by oceans and completely cut off from any interchange with 
anyone within a few thousand miles. And it is well-nigh essential that 
you have overwhelming and mobilized, active support to enforce the price 
control regime. But apart from exceptional circumstances, generalized 
policies that try to control a market economy against its natural 
tendencies are bound to fail.

These kinds of attempts to control a market economy by diktat also take 
place in the United States. Today, you have severe restrictions and 
repression to keep out certain commodities from the market: labor power 
from unauthorized workers. With all the laws against it, why are 
hundreds of millions of hours of "illegal" labor power bought and sold 
each and every week in the United States? Why don't all of Congress's 
laws work?

Because the economy obeys a higher law-- the law of supply and demand.

You see the same thing with Marijuana and prostitution today, alcohol 
prohibition in the last century, etc.

The failure of a generalized policy of diktats as the long term basis 
for economic policies is well-known. In Venezuela, the problem has been 
evident for several years. So why doesn't it change?

In general, it is often because there are sectors that benefit from 
these policies whose support the government needs, perhaps even to such 
a degree that it could be said the government is (at least) partly based 
on and represents those interests. In given sectors and properly 
designed, they can work, for example American and European agricultural 
subsidies.

In the case of Venezuela, corruption has become legendary. And it must 
be frankly admitted that a number of policies that contributed to this 
have in fact been demagogic and never benefited first and foremost the 
least advantaged layers of working people that supposedly they are aimed 
at protecting.

Take, for example, gasoline prices. The stuff is practically free. This 
encourages waste, promotes smuggling, creates pressure for the 
importation of vehicles and especially gas-guzzling American 
monstrosities, leads to lower exports costing the country a lot of hard 
currency and yields practically no benefit to the millions of people 
that have no cars and are mostly the least favored sector of the population.

You might object that it keeps public transit costs down for the 
population and reduces the cost of transporting goods inside the 
country. But keeping public transport costs low can more easily and 
sustainably be achieved through direct subsidies and cheapening 
transportation of goods is not necessarily a good thing, as it 
encourages arbitrage, especially when you have the government 
distributing subsidized goods through official channels and a portion of 
them are being diverted.

*  *  *

Is what amounts to what Latin Americans call an "autogolpe" --a 
self-coup-- in Venezuela a turning point, or a confirmation of one that 
had already passed? I do not know. But I do know that fort a couple of 
years, I've found it increasingly difficult to defend the actions of the 
Maduro government.

I almost breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday when Trump threatened 
Venezuela by saying he had not ruled out the military option, and even 
more when the oligarchic opposition on Sunday, after days of silence, 
came out with a statement denouncing foreign interference, for example 
... Cuba!!!

And Trump should not be dismissed lightly. He raised this quite 
consciously, obviously having planned it, as Pence was leaving on a 
junket to Latin America. In his first stop in Colombia, Pence proclaimed 
at a press conference that the U.S. considered a dictatorship in 
Venezuela intolerable. Meanwhile back in the USA, the head of the CIA 
went on Fox News to explain how Venezuela represented a potential threat 
to the national security of the United States: Cubans! Russians!! 
Iranians!!! And --worse of all-- Hezbollah!!!!

Thus for the moment defense of Venezuela and its established government, 
no matter who it is-- has an obvious precedence, and it also offers an 
opportunity to expose the oligarchic opposition.

But this does not solve the underlying problem: we need to understand 
Venezuela and what has happened. I don't feel I am in a position to do 
more than raise one possible explanation.

The way I tend to view this is very heavily influenced by the Nicaraguan 
experience of three decades ago. I lived for several years in Nicaragua 
at that time and eventually came to a very definite view, about how the 
revolution had been bled to death and strangled economically by the 
United States through the contra war.

Part of that analysis is that I came to view a revolution as first and 
foremost the mass, organized movement of the working people, and that it 
was the atomization of this movement, its being destroyed by the war and 
a grinding, day to day struggle for individual survival that led to the 
unraveling. This then had many and very negative consequences that 
eventually destroyed the FSLN as a revolutionary organization (today's 
FSLN is a very different animal even though directly descended from the 
former).

It was many years ago that I posted on this list a recounting of that 
experience. Thinking of Venezuela, I reposted it on my blog a few months 
ago. 
(hatueysashes.blogspot.com/2017/01/from-archives-how-1980s-sandinista.html)

Reading it again, I realize that I could not possibly have come to this 
understanding without having lived there for several years. And that I 
could not possibly write anything like this about Venezuela ever, not 
having been there.

But reading what i wrote about Nicaragua and thinking about what I think 
I can piece together about Venezuela fills me with dread. I hope I am wrong,

Joaquín

-----

Radio Información was started at the end of 2011 and is led by Teodoro 
Maus, who was Mexican consul-general here for more than a decade when 
the community was growing explosively from essentially nothing and was 
central to founding many community institutions, from the 
Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce to the main immigrant rights 
organization, now called the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights 
(glahr.org). He is like the Patriarch of the community, very well known.

I've been with the station since the beginning. Originally we were on a 
fairly low-power AM station, and two years ago we went Internet-only. We 
are non-profit but not non-commercial. We do accept advertising and 
sponsored programs (although selectively). Find us at :
- www.radioinformacion.org
- www.facebook.com/RadioInformacion, and
- www.youtube.com/channel/UCeukuq-dJIGM-vOnz6IRNFQ.





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