Lisa Sullivan, a U.S. citizen resident in Venezuela for many decades, was worrying about a neighbor “up and waiting in line since 2 am, searching, unsuccessfully, to buy food for her large family.” She’s concerned too about Venezuela’s worsening economic and political crisis.
Venezuela’s majority population has experienced major social gains through the Bolivarian Revolution, which its leader Hugo Chávez, president from 1999 until 2013, characterized as socialist. Oil exports fueled them, and now low oil prices are disrupting Venezuela’s economy and shaking the foundations of its social democracy.
U.S. intervention, now as before, aggravates internal political conflict. The U.S. Senate in April 2016 passed a bill renewing economic sanctions against Venezuelan leaders originally imposed in 2014. The House of Representatives did likewise on July 6, and President Obama is expected to sign the bill. He had issued an executive order in March 2015 declaring Venezuela to be a threat to U.S. national security.
The State Department on July 7 warned U.S. citizens about travel to Venezuela, citing “violent crime” and noting that “political rallies and demonstrations can occur with little notice.” Venezuela’s government denounced the “illegitimate sanctions” as “imperial pretensions.”
The U.S. government backed an unsuccessful coup against the Chávez government in 2002 and since has distributed tens of millions of dollars to opposition groups. The U.S. government has never extended recognition to Nicolás Maduro as Venezuela’s president.
A divided rightwing opposition did score a decisive electoral victory in December 2015 in gaining a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Maduro’s vulnerability has been evident since his election by a narrow margin in 2013. He very likely will be facing a recall vote in the coming months.
Venezuela’s economy is in the hands of a business class solidly opposed to the Bolivarian government. Over the past three years, mounting and now astronomical inflation, shortages of essential items, and hoarding of merchandise by importers and wholesalers have together devastated the economy.
The dependency of businesses and merchants on imported goods and materials is the economy’s Achilles’ heel. After 15 years of the Bolivarian revolution, Venezuela still has to import 70 percent of its food.
The government facilitates imports by selling dollars to importers at low exchange rates. Many of them in turn have responded by selling imported products at inflated prices through the black market, and profiteering. Meanwhile goods people need for survival don’t arrive, especially at government markets selling subsidized food and household supplies.
Lisa Sullivan has “witnessed a whole generation of my neighbors and friends gain access to dignified housing, free education, stable jobs with honorable wages, and free health care.” She supposes that the “majority of Venezuelans” back neither the opposition nor the Maduro government, but “this doesn’t mean that [they] are not fans of Chavismo,” she says.
They are angry at governmental corruption, divisions within President Maduro’s socialist party, and general disregard of problems at the grassroots. Analysts attribute the government’s defeat in the 2015 parliamentary elections to Bolivarian voters withholding their votes, not to their switching to the opposition.
Journalist Tamara Pearson suggests that despite “food shortages, inflation, and queues…millions of people” have “defied right-wing and general expectations, and even perhaps the expectations of the Maduro government, and have become stronger and better organized.”
Under Chávez Venezuela’s government cooperated closely with, and was supported by, Venezuela’s armed forces. Now the military’s allegiance is not as certain.
Analyst Milton D’León recalls that Chávez instituted “a dizzying increase in arms spending, the creation of military schools and universities, greater presence in political decisions, higher salaries for officials, and privileges of all kinds.” Maduro’s 30-member cabinet includes 10 active or retired military leaders. His government has created a “socialist military economic zone” that hosts businesses whose activities contribute to the military’s economic development.
D’León warns of danger for “working people [from] the growing role of the military…whether it is supporting Maduro, or spilling over to support a ‘transition’ by striking a deal with the right wing [and] imperialism.”
Marxist analyst Edgar Meléndez sees a constricted future for the Bolivarian government mainly because it never continued the development of its socialist project. He points out that the state sector accounts for 96.6 U.S. dollars out of every $100 gained through exports. Yet these resources eventually “drain” to the private sector. Thus “private accumulation is prioritized over resources the state produces. This is opposite to the interests of working people.”
He condemns “mono-production of petroleum accounting for 94 percent of Venezuela’s 2014 exports.” That and “a parasitic bourgeoisie” are “two of the most noxious characteristics of the Venezuelan economic model…. This situation, within the framework of capitalism itself, is a brake on the development of productive forces in our country.”
Lisa Sullivan is a witness to one striking failure of Venezuela’s version of socialism. Her neighbors are now growing food, she reports. That would be in response to the nation’s over-reliance on imported foods, never remedied by Bolivarian leaders. In terms of socialist development, food sovereignty typifies wealth produced for all through work. Vision or capacity apparently was lacking to move beyond the short-term, capitalist way of doing things. Venezuela has remained stuck in generating wealth almost exclusively through the extraction of oil.