On 23 January 2019, Juan Guaidó, member of Voluntad Popular and leader of the opposition, declared himself Venezuela’s interim President.
Thousands have taken to the streets, to support Guaidó or to oppose him and back incumbent President Nicolás Maduro. The US, Canada, Brazil, and the UK, and others have recognised as Guaidó as president. Maduro has severed diplomatic relations with the US; Russia and China continue to support him.
Maduro still holds government power, largely thanks to the Venezuelan military leadership’s enduring loyalty. On 10 January the opposition-held National Assembly disputed Maduro’s second inauguration as president, alleging that the May 2018 Presidential election that brought him to power had been rigged. Although the National Assembly is Venezuela’s de jure legislature, there have been de facto parallel legislatures since 2017, when Maduro called elections for a special Constituent Assembly by Presidential decree. The opposition boycotted those elections, denouncing the Constituent Assembly as nothing more than a trick to keep the incumbent Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) in power. Now the National Assembly has retaliated by declaring the 2018 Presidential election result void.
The international left should resisting the Venezuelan right’s attempt to gain control of the country, and foreign intervention by imperialist powers into Venezuela’s internal political processes. Maduro is deeply unpopular and the turnout for the 2018 election hit a record low of under 50% even on official figures, but Guaidó has not even an ostensible popular mandate he can point to for his assumed presidency. And if he were to gain meaningful power, Guaidó surely would pursue neoliberal policies directly harmful to the working class, including mass privatisation and the dismantling of social welfare programmes.
It is not clear what level of repression Guaidó would employ if the military top brass swings to his side and he wins. Many have invoked the 1973 coup in Chile, but the Venezuelan right’s actions so far do not yet amount to a coup in the literal sense of a seizure of power by or with the assistance of the military. Guaidó’s a kind of “soft coup”, with Guaidó seeking to draw high¬ranking officers away from Maduro. Indeed, by timing his self¬declaration as President for the anniversary of the 23 January 1958 overthrow of the Venezuelan dictator Pérez Jiménez, Guaidó is very consciously distancing himself from the likes of Pinochet.
In the absence of a direct foreign military intervention, Guaidó would probably not be able to exert the kind of suppressive violence seen from the Venezuelan right in such past events as the unsuccessful 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez or the 1989 Caracazo. But he still would have to act repressively towards workplaces in sectors where there remains social support for Maduro (or for Chavismo more broadly). Moreover, the Venezuelan right’s evident coordination with the governments of the US and of other Latin American states should cause concern. So should Trump’s appointment of Elliott Abrams, an official convicted for his role in the Iran¬Contra scandal, to “restore democracy” in Venezuela.
Although, on balance, it appears that the Venezuelan workers would be at greater risk if Guaidó wins the current power struggle and, on this basis, resisting the soft coup is our priority, we should not understand this as positive support for Maduro’s regime. The PSUV retains a Mafia¬like grip on the trade unions. Most of the Communal Councils vaunted as truly participatory venues for working¬class democracy are little more than passive feedback mechanisms for the bureaucracy. Maduro’s policies have systematically attacked both working conditions and the natural environment in Venezuela.
We in Workers’ Liberty have never accepted Chavismo as “actually existing socialism” or as in transition to socialism. Many of us instead see it as a kind of Bonapartism because of how it maintains an uneasy alliance between sections of the working class, the national bourgeoisie, and the military. Under both Chavez and Maduro, the military has been central to state administration, even in respect of the social-welfarist “Bolivarian missions” that did bring material benefits to the Venezuelan workers.
Much of the international left remains far too inclined to attribute the catastrophic hyperinflation and food shortages in Venezuela, which have resulted in Venezuelans losing 11 kilograms (24 lbs) in body weight on average and an estimated 2.3 million people fleeing the country, to an inevitable crisis of capitalism or to economic sanctions from the US. Both Chávez and Maduro could have taken steps to avoid the obvious hazards posed by how Venezuela’s entire economy is built around oil, which predictably devastated the country when oil prices plummeted from late 2014, yet they did not do so. (Moreover, oil prices have risen again since early 2016, and are markedly higher than they were in 2008 or before 2006). Even if we could absolve Maduro of blame for Venezuela’s economic ruin, that would not lead us to forgive Maduro’s ever¬increasing authoritarianism.
The reports of torture and extra-judicial killing are not all Western or capitalist propaganda. Although left-oppositionist groups in Venezuela, such as Marea Socialista, remain politically sidelined by both the Venezuelan right and the Chavista mainstream, it is our responsibility as socialists and internationalists to spotlight and engage with them, and to build links with labour organisers who realise the need to free the rankand-file from the grip of the bureaucracy. In short, Venezuela needs independent working-class organising more than ever.