Over the past three weeks there has been another major attempt to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. The methods this time have been barricades violently maintained by right-wing thugs, the vandalism of public property such as buses and medical centres, the killing of government supporters, and the deliberate provocation of retaliatory violence. Their most coherent demand is “La Salida”, “the exit” immediately of a president who has five years of his term to run. This has been combined with a vast echo chamber of lies and distortions on corporate social media such as facebook and twitter. The traditional corporate media then needs little further encouragement to do the rest, and paint the democratic government of Venezuela as authoritarian and repressive. So-called liberal journalists do their bit as well, crying crocodile tears over the corruption of the revolution's goals, and excoriating those on the left who argue differently. For erstwhile or potential supporters of the Bolivarian process thrown into confusion by what is spewing into their twitter feed, I want to argue how unique and unprecedented the Venezuelan revolution is, and why we should all battle to defend it. For this we need a sober look at the often disastrous history of revolutions, and to understand the usual ways in which they get defeated.
1. Military coup: as happened for instance all over Latin America from the 60s to the 80s. The model of this for the international extreme right is Chile in 1973. Salvador Allende's Popular Unity coalition had since 1970 commenced an ambitious programme of socialist reform, and in local elections in March 1973 had increased their vote. In September the military under General Augusto Pinochet took power, bombing the presidential palace, suspending the constitution, and arresting, torturing and killing thousands of opponents. The era of the coup d'etat in Latin America is still not over, with military oustings of leftist presidents in Haiti in 2004 and Honduras in 2009.
In Venezuela a similar coup was attempted in 2002. President Hugo Chavez was kidnapped three years after his first election victory, along with a number of government ministers. One of these ministers was arrested by a mob led by Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the current protests in Venezuela, and humiliatingly paraded before and attacked by coup supporters. As in Chile, the constitution was suspended, the decree for this signed by Maria Corina Machado, another leader of the present protests. But entirely against the grain of history, the coup was defeated within two days by popular mobilisation, and Chavez was returned to power.
2. “Soft” constitutional coup: Fernando Lugo, President of Paraguay, was summarily removed from power in July 2012 in 24 hours by an impeachment voted by the right-wing Chamber of Deputies and Senate. He was given no time to appeal or prepare a defence. Recently in Colombia, there has been an attempt by judicial authority to evict from office ex-guerilla mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro. Among Petro's purported crimes is “violation of the free market”.
Impeachment of Maduro through parliamentary vote is not going to happen in Venezuela while pro-government parties have a clear majority. One democratic reform brought in by the Bolivarian Constitution is the recall referendum if enough voters demand it half-way through the presidential term. Chavez faced a recall referendum in 2004, and won it by a landslide. Maduro may face one in 2016, if the opposition decide they have a chance of winning. This at any rate is a world away from the “constitutional coup” practised in Paraguay, which peremptorily removed a president without consulting the population as a whole.
3. War: The revolutionary government in Russia between 1918 and 1920 was attacked variously by US, French and British military, supporting “White” Russian insurgents inside the country. In Nicaragua during the 1980s, the US sponsored a crippling war on its borders, with repeated terrorist attacks on schools and hospitals, sapping this impoverished country's slender resources for financing social change. In the Soviet Union the civil war was one of the causes of a militarised totalitarian politics of mass murder, and in Nicaragua an exhausted population voted the Sandinistas out of power for the next 16 years.
In Venezuela, there are have been serious problems with “de-mobbed” right-wing paramilitaries coming across the border from Colombia, perpetrating violent and organized crime and assassinating local community leaders, as they were accustomed to doing at home. But as yet there is no civil war nor US-funded terrorist operation on Venezuela's frontiers.
4. Invasion by the US Marines: as Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, Latin America suffers from two natural disasters: earthquakes and invasions by the Marines. The most recent of these in Latin America were the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983, when leftist regimes in both were deposed. The US army's role in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010 is arguably a “soft invasion”, under the guise of humanitarian aid, to maintain US control and to ensure new investment opportunities for US companies.
The nightmarish memories of Vietnam, the relative independence from US influence of Latin American regional associations, and the sheer size of Venezuela and the popularity of its revolution make this a very unattractive option for the US State Department at the moment. Venezuela is not Haiti.
5. Economic embargo: when Cuba's major trading partner the US imposed a progressively more restrictive trade ban from 1960 to 1962, the Cuban revolution could only survive with the support of the Soviet Union, and a top-down one-party state was entrenched.
By contrast, Venezuela has possibly the largest oil reserves in the world, on which the US economy is dependent.
6. Economic sabotage: in Chile “bosses' strikes” began in September 1972, a year before the coup d'etat, crippling the economy.
In Venezuela, after the failure of the coup attempt in 2002, the opposition strangled the economy by launching a strike in the state-owned oil company (PDVSA), effectively a managerial lockout, as part of an attempted general strike. GDP fell by 27%, but the strikes in other businesses gradually collapsed, and after three months the government was back in control of the PDVSA, sacking 18,000 managers in the process. Venezuelan oil supply, and the economy in general, recovered rapidly. A constant problem has been the hoarding of goods, whether as political sabotage or simple profit-gouging, with as much as 30% of food disappearing as contraband over the border with Colombia. 40,000 tons of hoarded food were discovered by the authorities in the first half of 2013 alone. Nevertheless, despite shortages, inflation-matching rises in the minimum wage and fixed low prices for basic goods have maintained the government's popularity among the poor majority.
7. Starting off as undemocratic: after the Bolsheviks were defeated in the election of November 1917, just one month after they seized power, they closed the Constituent Assembly on day one, never to re-open. Lenin was roundly criticised by fellow revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg for this. Liberal democracy, the voting of all citizens for representatives in periodic elections, was anyway at this time a very new idea. Universal suffrage only existed in four countries by 1917 - New Zealand, Finland, Denmark and Norway. “Dictatorship of the (industrial) proletariat” in Russia led to genocidal policies against certain nationalities and the mistrusted peasant class, and ultimately to Stalinist mass murder.
The Bolivarian revolution has followed exactly the opposite course from the Soviet Union. Venezuela is obsessively democratic, holding 18 free and fair elections in the past 14 years, 17 of them won by the left. In addition there is a new constitution which enshrines civil, cultural and economic rights for citizens in an unprecedented way. And perhaps most admirable of all, there is a parallel, participatory democracy Chavez called the “communal state”, where any group of neighbours (150-400 families in a city, a minimum of 20 in the countryside) can form a communal council, receive funds for their local projects, and make consensual decisions about matters which affect them. The contrast between this project and the soviets of revolutionary Russia, which rapidly became mouthpieces of the Bolshevik Party, is extreme. As of 2013 there were 44,000 communal councils in Venezuela.
8. Re-election of the right-wing after a brief “left-wing interlude”: Left-wing governments committed to profound social change have often been elected with the support of popular movements, but once in power promptly compromise, and prove unable to deliver for the majority of the population. Or else the problem of running a redistributive economy in a globalised capitalist world results in balance of payment deficit and credit rating decline, and the economy spirals downwards.
In Venezuela, when Chavez, initially only a populist nationalist with a commitment to help the poor, met with opposition attempts to block this, he moved to the left, rather than the right. The result was the idea of “21st century socialism”. Subsequent events were unprecedented in world history: continuing free and fair elections have all been won by the left, apart from one constitutional referendum. The most recent election was in December, when the United Socialist Party and its allies won by a margin of ten percentage points. As for the economy, oil income has given the Bolivarian government the scope for a massive increase in social spending, with the largest reduction in poverty in Latin America in 2012.
In total, then, this historical perspective backs Carlos Fernandez Liria's startling conclusion, that what is happening in Venezuela is “the most important and most interesting political event since the French Revolution”. The bleak old anarchist saying “if democracy changed anything, they'd abolish it” is at last out-dated. But the Venezuelan elite, the international right, the corporate media and the US State Department keep on trying to wipe it out. It behoves all leftists, progressives, and anyone who cares about the fate of the poor and powerless to fight as hard as we can against those who would defeat it.