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7 February 2019updated 27 Jul 2021 4:58am

What the West gets wrong about Venezuela: it doesn’t need ideology, it needs urgent care

Those taking to the streets aren’t protesting Maduro’s ideology, but his failure to deliver on a promised vision. These people don’t have money to feed their families or buy basic goods.

By Stefano Pozzebon

“There is nothing socialist about Nicolas Maduro. The guy is a fraud. This government is not progressive – it’s a government that represses workers.” These are the words of José Bodas, a workers’ union leader, who has spent more than 30 years fighting for workers’ rights. When I visited him last year in Barcelona, a city in eastern Venezuela, he was standing in front of a portrait of Vladimir Lenin.

Bodas has worked for PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, his whole life. He led pickets demanding fair wages for his colleagues in the pre-Chavez era of private enterprise, and continues to do so now, despite 20 years of “socialist” revolution. His colleagues are still underpaid, receiving the minimum wage of 18,000 bolivars ($6.70) per month.

Bodas’s words underpinned a crucial political debate in Venezuela: is the fight to remove President Nicolas Maduro a struggle between left and right? Are liberals outside of Venezuela justified in supporting regime change? And is the international left right to defend a leader who calls himself a socialist and proletarian?

To answer these questions, we must look at the reasons people are protesting. According to the Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social, an NGO and Human Rights group that monitors protests across the country, Venezuelans took to the street a record 12,715 times in 2018, averaging 35 protests per day.

Of these protests, which took place across each of Venezuela’s 23 states, 89 per cent (11,319) were to demand economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. The primary cause for such protests was to demand workers’ rights and better salaries (5,535), followed by access to basic services such as gas, water and electricity (3,953), and access to food (1,257). 

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The primary cause of unrest in Venezuela isn’t about ideology: it’s about basic necessities. In response to hyperinflation, which is running at 100,000 per cent, and a 47 per cent collapse in GDP, Maduro has increased the minimum wage six times in the last 12 months. One monthly salary in February 2019 is equivalent to 3,600 monthly salaries in February 2018. The current minimum monthly wage is worth around just £5 ($6.70).

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While there are numerous reasons for Venezuela’s economic collapse, what remains undisputed is that Nicolas Maduro oversaw the crisis. During his presidency, Venezuela’s oil production halved from almost three million barrels a day to 1.5 million. The country’s overdependence on oil left it exposed to a 40 per cent collapse in oil prices in 2014. To plug the gap left by its decimated oil revenues, Maduro’s government began printing money at record rate. As fewer dollars entered the country through oil, the central bank continued to inject local currency into the economy, ultimately leading to hyperinflation.

Those who are taking to the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities are not protesting Maduro’s ideology, but rather his failure to deliver on a vision he promised. These people do not have money to buy food to feed their families, and cannot afford basic goods. Most of them have relatives or friends who have since fled the country; more than three million Venezuelans now live abroad, according to the International Organisation of Migration, by far the largest migratory wave that has taken place in Latin America in recent years.

As the economy collapses, Maduro has reacted with a heady mixture of autocracy and repression.

There were a number of goals that Maduro could have scored to avert the current crisis. Rather than attempting to stimulate domestic production or demand in the real economy, Maduro succumbed to gross economic mismanagement. The government proceeded with a chaotic programme of nationalisation, removing experienced managers from farms and food processing plants and instead placing state-owned enterprises under military control.

Recognising that he needed the army to sustain his grip on power, Maduro placed army generals in charge of public transportation, water, gas and tourism companies, compensating military salaries with bonuses and creating a system of patronage rife for corruption.  

At the same time, the president has met protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas in a series of authoritarian crackdowns that have seen at least 40 people die. In a nine-day period between 21 and 30 January, 939 people were arrested during protests, according to Foro Penal, a human rights group.

As the group’s founder Alfredo Romero, a human rights lawyer, tells me: “The vast majority of them are people from the most popular areas: these are kids from the slums, they are not middle-class professionals or rich people. Maduro is putting the poor in jails.”

Left-wing politicians – including the Labour party’s Jeremy Corbyn – have in the past venerated Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez as an example of socialism in practice. But to now defend Maduro’s presidency is to sanction the imprisonment of dissidents and the state’s failure to ensure its citizens have access to basic necessities, including food and medicine.

The anti-Maduro coalition of Venezuelans looks more like a cross-party federation than a counter-revolutionary force, and is united by a single aim: to oust Nicolas Maduro. It brings together a plurality of actors. Free-marketeers like former Venezuelan Minister of Planning Ricardo Hausmann stand alongside ministers who formerly served under Hugo Chavez and identify as communists, such as Hector Navarro, former Minister of Education.

The coalition’s recent announcements reflect this diversity. While Carlos Vecchio, Venezuela’s U.S. Ambassador, promised to “open up” the Venezuelan oil market to foreign investors, most of the anti-Maduro coalition’s efforts in Caracas have been directed towards allowing humanitarian aid into the country.

The time will come when Venezuela will be forced to reckon with a legacy of 20 years of Chavismo, and decide on its future political course. Some will be thankful for Chavez’s generous social housing and expanded education policies; others will reflect on the political corruption his presidency engendered.

But the struggle taking place right now in Venezuela is not about left or right, socialism or neoliberalism. It’s about citizens attempting to defeat a leader who has thrown the country into a deep and painful economic malaise. To Western onlookers who use Venezuela as a totem to illustrate their own partisan commitments: what Venezuela needs now isn’t ideology, but urgent care.

Stefano Pozzebon is a correspondent in Venezuela who reports for CNN and Al Jazeera. He can be found tweeting @StePozzebon