The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 81/No. 2      January 9, 2017

(front page)

Unrest across Venezuela reflects depth of
capitalist crisis

In a sign of the depth of the capitalist economic crisis that is battering working people in Venezuela, looting broke out in at least nine cities across the country Dec. 16 and 17.

The spark was the Dec. 11 announcement by President Nicolás Maduro that he was withdrawing 100-bolivar notes, worth about US 3 cents on the black market, as of Dec. 15. The old notes had to be deposited in the bank or exchanged for new larger denominations.

Maduro also announced the temporary closing of the border with Colombia and Brazil. He said the measures were necessary to undermine “mafias” that were speculating with the currency and had warehoused huge quantities of 100-bolivar notes outside the country.

But the new paper money didn’t arrive — Maduro said planes with the new bills were delayed by unnamed “saboteurs” — and banks were overwhelmed with the crush of those trying to make deposits. Businesses stopped accepting 100-bolivar bills. Some towns ground to a halt as business owners and workers waited in line until midnight trying to deposit their bills, often without success.

The southeastern state of Bolivar, a mining region, was most affected, with more than 600 supermarkets and other stores looted. The government sent some 3,000 soldiers, national guardsmen and police to Ciudad Bolivar and other towns there Dec. 18. They imposed a curfew for two days, and arrested hundreds of people.

Many of the stores targeted in Bolivar were Chinese and Chinese-Venezuelan owned, fueled by anti-Chinese rhetoric on local radio. “They even took the light cables, the switches, the light bulbs,” Maribel Figuera, a worker at the Great Spain Xiang Chen Supermarket, told the daily Correo del Caroní. Beijing, one of Caracas’ main trading partners, called on the Venezuelan government to take “effective measures” to protect Chinese citizens there.

After the looting, Maduro extended the deadline for exchanging the bills to Jan. 2 and has reopened the border with Colombia. The government also promised loans and other aid for businesses that were affected and said it was sending packages of food and children’s toys to Ciudad Bolivar.

Conditions for working people in Venezuela have been deteriorating for the last several years. The price of oil, which accounts for 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, dropped by half since 2014, and oil production is now at a 13-year low. Inflation is estimated at anywhere from 500 percent to 830 percent annually.

Hospitals are short of basic supplies. Even with distribution of government food packets and free school meals, hunger is increasing with basic food items out of reach of many.

‘Bolivarian revolution’

A slight upturn in oil prices to $55 a barrel in December is not enough to allow the government to fully maintain social programs begun after the election of Hugo Chávez as president in 1998. Those programs — an essential part of what Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela called the Bolivarian revolution and 21st century socialism — built thousands of houses and subsidized food and other basic necessities for working people. “Missions” set up by the government extended health care and education to the poorest urban areas and the countryside with the help of thousands of Cuban volunteers.

The Venezuelan government’s close ties to revolutionary Cuba and its refusal to bow to Washington’s dictates on trade and foreign policy drew the ire of U.S. imperialism. From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, every U.S. administration has sought ways to replace Chávez and then Maduro with a regime more amenable to U.S. capitalist interests. Washington has been silent on the latest crisis, however, worried about a social explosion that could further undermine U.S. capitalist interests.

The current crisis shows the limits of trying to administer capitalist market relations, not overthrowing them.

Capitalists take advantage of the measures to line their own pockets. Subsidized food and other goods are diverted from the stores, exacerbating shortages at the official prices, and sold at higher prices on the black market or in Colombia. Special exchange rates for dollars — designed to facilitate imports — has become a source of free money for business owners to speculate on.

On Dec. 20, Ford Motor Co. announced that it was halting auto production at its Valencia plant due to lower demand for the Fiestas and Explorer SUVs it manufactures. Some 2,000 auto workers will be laid off at least until April.

The Maduro government has sought to counter the combination of capitalist sabotage and the normal workings of the capitalist market with more administrative measures. On Dec. 9 William Contreras, Venezuela’s superintendent of fair prices, ordered the confiscation and distribution of nearly 4 million toys from the Kreisel company, charging the company had underreported its inventory to get higher prices.

On Dec. 21 Contreras ordered clothing store EPK to lower its prices under government supervision.

The political opposition to Maduro centered in the Democratic Unity Roundtable — composed of pro-imperialist parties with close ties to Washington — is highly fractured and discredited among working people. They have a long record in defense of the capitalist class in Venezuela, including backing a failed coup against Chávez in 2002.

After the looting, the only demands raised by Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state and a prominent member of the pro-imperialist coalition, were an echo of what Maduro was already carrying out: Delay the withdrawal of the 100-bolivar notes and compensate businessmen whose stores were looted.  
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