Worker empowerment stalls in Venezuela as left unity fractures
Public workers protest for better salaries and benefits outside the Education Ministry in Caracas, Venezuela, March 27, 2023. The sign reads in Spanish: 'Salaries of 130 Bolivars is genocide.' The monthly wage of 130 Bolivars is about $6 U.S. dollars. | Ariana Cubillos / AP

Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president from 1999 until 2013, inspired and led a “Bolivarian Revolution” that sought independence from U.S. domination, regional integration, and so-called “socialism of the 21st century.” The obstacles that lay before these goals have been many: capitalism in control of the national economy, unrelenting right-wing political opposition, U.S. intervention—and longstanding political divisions among left forces.

Worker empowerment languishes in such a context. We offer an explanation, and doing so, attribute the divisions to differing approaches to the predicament of Venezuelan workers.

Several months ago, union workers in many sectors were vigorously protesting low wages and demanding that wages be paid in dollars to counter inflation. Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president after Chávez’s death in 2013, reprimanded them for not “understanding the effects of the blockade and the oligarchy’s economic war.”

To be sure, the government faces terrible challenges. Contributing to economic disaster are U.S. sanctions and the depressed oil prices that have prevailed for ten years or so. Oil exports have accounted for most of Venezuela’s export income. Economic crisis surely diminishes prospects for worker empowerment.

Impact of economic crisis

Recent developments tell much of that story. The U.S. Justice Department, on May 4, lifted restraints on the sale of the Citgo company’s assets to the creditors of the Venezuelan state and of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA. Citgo is PDVSA’s U.S.-based oil company. Worth $13 billion, it owns three oil refineries and 4,000 gasoline stations.

U.S. authorities confiscated Citgo in 2019. It gave the company to the right-wing opponents of the Maduro government who, between 2015 and 2021, constituted a majority in Venezuela’s National Assembly. This group will be managing the sales of Citgo shares to the company’s high-rolling creditors worldwide.

Rather than retrieve annual Citgo profits of a billion dollars or so, the government has lost them completely. Income from the sales of oil products had previously enabled the government to pay for healthcare, schools, housing, and more. The larger picture is that $30 billion in Venezuelan assets have been “blocked, retained, or confiscated.”

The U.S. State Department, on May 3, announced that $347 million in Venezuelan funds now frozen in U.S. banks will be returned, not to Venezuela’s government, but to that former opposition bench in the National Assembly. For the United States, that’s Venezuela’s government.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan workers are struggling to survive; worker empowerment is a distant dream. Presently, one-third of Venezuelan children are undernourished. The poverty rate has fallen a little but remains at 50%. In one of the world’s most unequal societies, wealthy Venezuelans have access to imported goods, dollars, and the proceeds from illegal businesses. The latter make up 20% of the national economy.

The economic crisis hurts Venezuela’s working class. It impedes efforts to strengthen it. We must know the extent to which Venezuela’s government supports workers.

Shifting alliances and labor rights

In February 2018, Maduro was seeking support in the presidential elections that year from the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). He appeared at the PCV headquarters and declared the PCV “to be the principal party in founding and defending democracy in the 20th century.”

The government’s political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and the PCV signed a “Unitary Framework Agreement,” which backed “the rights of the working class and the working people.” The PCV did support Maduro in the elections in May 2018.

Within months, however, the government introduced its “Program of Recuperation, Growth, and Economic Prosperity,” which, according to labor historian Omar Vázquez Heredia, provided for “major devaluation of the official exchange rate, elimination of price controls and import tariffs …[and] regressive labor reforms … [such as] elimination of the right to strike.”  He also adds that dollars had already been disappearing through smuggling, hoarding, import fraud, and governmental corruption.

The new anti-worker measures showed up in the government’s “Memorandum 2792” of October 2018. The PCV critiqued the government’s ready support for business interests and questioned its delivery of scarce dollars to foreign creditors and to Venezuela’s business sectors to help them import and distribute foreign goods.

Analyst Héctor Alejo Rodríguez notes that the government, through its October memorandum, “flattened the wages for all sectors and unilaterally canceled all the collective bargaining agreements of the workers.” Workers, he points out, were already dealing with “acute shortages, loss of social gains, deterioration of public services, and the systematic destruction of [their] incomes and rights.”

At a May Day rally in 2023, former labor leader Maduro told workers that funds were unavailable for salary increases, also that their “economic war bonus” would continue and their monthly food bonuses increase. The minimum wage would be equivalent to $5.25 per month—and lose value due to inflation.

The two parties—PSUV and PCV—have a history of cooperation and differences stretching back many years. Chávez created the “Great Patriotic Pole” electoral coalition. The PCV joined the coalition and backed Chávez in the 2006 and 2012 elections, and it did the same when Maduro ran in 2013. Chávez also founded PSUV in 2007. He counted on smaller leftist parties to relinquish their identity and join his new party.

The PCV and other parties refused, however, provoking Chávez in 2008 to threaten the PCV’s destruction. PCV leader Oscar Figuera declared that his party would still affiliate with the Patriotic Pole coalition, but it would maintain organizational independence. After all, as he noted, “We have just completed 77 years struggling for socialism in Venezuela.”

The PCV broke with the PSUV in 2020 and formed a new electoral coalition, the People’s Revolutionary Alternative (APR). Party leaders say they are “Chavista” and anti-imperialist, but they want oil monies used more for industrial development and rural productivity and less for paying foreign debt or for capitalists to use as they wish.

Meanwhile, the government stepped up the “criminalization of labor protests” and forced the retirement of many labor leaders. APR candidates have been dismissed from jobs or jailed. The PSUV often presents speakers who denounce the PCV and at the same time falsely claim to have been PCV members or to have been expelled by the PCV.

Some clarity

Mostly tellingly, a flurry of killings has recently taken the lives of several PCV activists. In Apure state alone, in 2023, thugs murdered Communist journalist José Urbina and Communist community leader Juan de Dios Hernández.

In Venezuela presently, the prospects for worker empowerment, not to speak of working-class political power, are dismal. A distant observer lacks full knowledge of local realities and is ill-equipped to assign blame. In any case, caution is the watchword in passing judgment that might detract from unity in the broader political movement.

Now a neighbor weighs in. Writing on May 8 in Seminario Voz, the Colombian Communist Party’s newspaper, Ricardo Arenales criticizes the PSUV. He cites the killings and false PSUV accusations.

Arenales cites a communication from the PCV Political Bureau to Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who on April 1 met with representatives of Venezuela’s right-wing political opposition and who was about to meet with regional foreign ministers. Petro is seeking to ease political conflict within Venezuela and somehow end U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela.

The PCV letter calls for negotiators to attend to “the political and social forces that are on the fringes of the polarizing diatribe.” The PCV rejects “a pact among the elites … [which] is built on the ruin of the popular majorities” and which represents “the interference of foreign powers in the solution of conflicts that exclusively concern Venezuelans.”

Arenales implies that right-wing powerbrokers in Venezuela and abroad use negotiations to incapacitate the PCV. He mentions that “under the heading of sovereign resolution of conflicts in the brother country, … the right of the Venezuelan Communists to exist and struggle cannot be denied. For that to happen would be a serious contradiction in the building of democracy.”

Arenales reports that “parties and intellectuals of the world” and regional groupings in Latin America like the São Paulo Forum are proposing mediation processes for the sake of “rapprochement among the PCV, PSUV, and Venezuelan government.”

Will they be successful? Can the unity of the left, or at least cooperation among its various parties, be rebuilt? The future of Venezuelan socialism depends on such questions.

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W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.