For the last three months, these opposition forces have stepped up protests across the country designed to provoke violent clashes with the police and National Guard. They seek to open divisions among the Venezuelan armed forces and government officials in the hopes of fomenting a coup.
Their actions are encouraged by the financial and travel sanctions imposed on some Venezuelan officials by the U.S. government.
Washington has sought to replace the Venezuelan government since 1998 when Hugo Chávez was elected president. While both Chávez and Maduro, who he chose to succeed him as president, left most industry and agriculture in the hands of the capitalist class in Venezuela, Washington saw what Venezuelans called the Bolivarian Revolution as an obstacle to imperialist domination of the region.
The U.S. rulers especially hated the Venezuelan government’s close ties to revolutionary Cuba, the oil it provided Cuba and other Caribbean nations at preferential prices, and the use of oil profits to subsidize social welfare programs. Tens of thousands of Cuban internationalist doctors, nurses and teachers have volunteered to provide low cost medical care and literacy programs, often in the poorest and hardest to reach parts of the Venezuelan countryside.
Washington — and many of the leaders of the opposition Roundtable — backed a military coup in 2002 and a “strike” by oil bosses in 2003, both of which were defeated by massive popular outpourings.
Over the last few years, opposition groups have been able to take advantage of the deepening capitalist economic crisis — including their own sabotage of government measures — to bolster their position. Runaway inflation and constant shortages of food and other goods have made life increasingly difficult for Venezuelan working people. Many pay less attention to politics today, consumed by the struggle to survive.
MUD candidates won a majority in the December 2015 legislative elections bringing the National Assembly under their control.
Opposition plans provocations
In April, after the Supreme Court backed off on its attempt to take away the National Assembly’s legislative powers, the Roundtable launched a campaign of anti-government demonstrations that have resulted in more than 70 deaths, including both supporters and opponents of the government as well as bystanders.
On May 1 Maduro announced July 30 elections to a 545-member Constituent Assembly — with delegates elected both by region and by “sector,” including slots for students, retirees, peasants and fishermen, workers and bosses — which will have the power to revise the constitution and pass laws, bypassing the opposition-controlled legislature. MUD calls for a boycott, saying the election is unconstitutional and rigged.
The group has set its own unofficial referendum on July 16, in which voters will be asked for their opinion on whether they reject Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly, and on the opposition’s demand that government and armed forces officials defend the 1999 Constitution and back the decisions of the National Assembly.
The political polarization has continued to deepen as both sides engage in violent confrontations. Opposition demonstrators with their faces covered routinely throw Molotov cocktails and fire homemade mortars at police and National Guard sent to break up the protests.
The Roundtable is also taking advantage of a dispute between the Maduro government and Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz. Government officials began an investigation June 20 that could lead to her removal from office. Previously a supporter of the Maduro government, Ortega has spoken out against some of his measures over the last several months, including the call for the Constituent Assembly and against brutality by the police and National Guard.
A violent attack by pro-Maduro forces on Roundtable legislators inside the National Assembly in Caracas July 5 left several of them bleeding and battered. The attack handed Washington and the opposition a weapon to use against the government at home and abroad. Maduro said he “absolutely condemns” the assault.
Meanwhile, the Maduro government surprised many by unilaterally commuting the sentence of opposition leader Leopoldo López, transferring him from a military prison to house arrest. López had been imprisoned for over three years.
“Now is the time for sustained pressure on Maduro,” López’s U.S. lawyer Jared Genser said after the release. “Relentless pressure is working.”
Working people bear brunt of crisis
It’s workers and farmers in Venezuela who are paying the price of the capitalist crisis.
The gross national product has fallen an estimated 30 percent over the last four years. The worldwide drop in oil prices and a drop in Venezuelan oil production, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the country’s hard currency, have made it harder to fund welfare programs.
The crisis is worsened by pressure from Washington, rampant inflation, hoarding of basic goods by capitalist companies, and anti-social problems bred by the crisis, including one of the highest violent crime rates in the world.
Nonetheless foreign speculators see Venezuelan bonds as a good investment because of the government’s commitment to make every payment, despite the crisis.
In addition to shortages of food at government-set prices, there is a drastic shortage in medicines, from basic antibiotics to drugs for AIDS.
The government announced a 50 percent increase in the minimum wage for government employees July 1, the third increase this year, but it isn’t nearly enough to keep up with inflation — estimated at 720 percent this year.
CubaDebate, a Cuban website, ran an article June 30 highlighting some of the challenges in Venezuela. It noted that the government, first under Chávez and continuing today, set up a low, parallel exchange rate for dollars for companies that import goods. But many companies instead sell the dollars on the black market, fueling inflation and worsening the scarcity of basic necessities. Corruption in the government is also a problem that alienates working people, CubaDebate said.
Government tries to combat scarcity
In March last year the government launched Local Food and Production Committees (CLAP) to combat scarcity and high prices.
“In every neighborhood, especially the poorer ones, local committees distribute a monthly bag of basic, subsidized products,” Ana Graciela Barrios, who works with a community group in the San Agustín del Sur neighborhood, told the Militant by phone from Caracas June 30. “It helps, but it only lasts a week. And not all the committees work as well.”
Other workers report that products designated for CLAP distribution all too often end up on the black market instead.
Shortages of medicine hit workers the hardest, Barrios said. Cuban-staffed medical missions, like Cuba’s other internationalist aid, continue and are popular among working people. But they have difficulty getting needed medicines and supplies.
“There’s tremendous discontent among working people,” Barrios said. Nonetheless a significant section of the working class still sees the Maduro government as their government, or at least a lesser evil to the U.S.-backed opposition. Barrios said she supports the Constituent Assembly, “but it won’t solve Venezuela’s problems.”
Cuba protests U.S. interference
The revolutionary government of Cuba has condemned the violent protests and outside interference in Venezuela. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs June 28 expressed “its strongest solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution and its leaders.”
Granma, daily paper of the Communist Party of Cuba, featured an interview June 30 with Rogelio Enrique Suárez, a Cuban doctor who has been volunteering in Venezuela since 2014. Suárez notes that the Barrio Adentro joint Cuban-Venezuelan medical mission works in the areas “where the population needs us the most” and plans to continue doing so.
Venezuela is “in a war of attrition,” he said. The Cuban volunteers aren’t afraid, but “we have to be aware of the dangers.”