In 1989, following mass rioting, after government austerity measures which cut working-class incomes, 300 people were killed by the security forces in Venezuela. Most of the bodies “disappeared”; but in October 1996, because of a putrid smell in a building in a cemetery, on a hillside just outside the capital, Caracas, dozens of unidentified corpses were discovered. They had been dumped there secretly by the state, and left to rot.
It was not, however, just the bodies of the workers that were left to rot. Much of Venezuela was in a state of decay. Moreover, as we pointed out last year (Socialist Standard, October 1998), the economy had been teetering on the edge of total instability throughout the 1990s. Not surprisingly, Venezuela was badly affected by the economic crisis spreading throughout much of the world. The government, whose currency had been under intense pressure for some time, launched an immediate round of public spending cuts. What has happened since then?
Seven years ago, Hugo Chavez led a failed military coup against the government, “in the name of Venezuela’s poor”; but was democratically elected president last February. He is a belligerent populist, who claimed that he would root out corruption, of which there is a lot, in Venezuela.
Following his inauguration, Chavez soon showed his hand. He began to prepare for the elections in August. He flouted the electoral laws by promoting his own candidates, and by appointing army officers to senior government posts. And he claimed that he had strong support among the poor majority. And he has been proved right. His left-wing coalition, which included his wife, his brother and about 20 of his former military colleagues, won 122 seats of the 131-seat assembly, in an 80 percent turnout.
He says that the new assembly will renew institutions which have been dominated by the two old parties for 40 years; and he wants the assembly to dissolve congress and the supreme court. Following his victory, Chavez claimed that:
The victory of the patriots has been pulverising. We are building a true democracy in a way that those who destroyed the country from here didn’t know how to (Guardian, 27 July).
Official statistics admit that sixty-five percent of Venezuelans live in poverty, despite the fact that the country possesses the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere. During the last three decades, the per capita wealth of Venezuela has dropped twenty-five percent. In October last year, we asked: what of the working class? And we said that, for them, it can only get worse. We were right.
Despite the stabilisation of the currency, there has been a sharp economic downturn of the economy, resulting in the loss of about 600,000 jobs since Hugo Chavez took office as President in February. Moreover, we can safely predict that the majority of the people of Venezuela, the employed and unemployed working class, will continue to exist in poverty and deprivation, in the dilapidated apartments of Caracas, the run-down shacks of the surrounding ranchos or the one-storey slums of Maracy in Aragua state.
All Chavez’s proposed reforms, and all the present support of the workers, will not make one iota of difference. Only a change from capitalism to socialism will achieve that.
Peter E. Newell