Venezuela: Student protests or economic war?

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In the past few weeks Venezuela has been shook by violent protests, some say violent repression of peaceful protests. The central notion in every narrative about Venezuela in the past week is violence, so what are the roots of this violence?

Let’s role things back a bit here. When Chavez first assumed the office of president in 1998, the Venezuelan Republic, although lavished with the greatest petroleum reserves on earth, was unable to  offer to half of its people adequate living conditions.

In 1997, the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line was 67%. Thanks to the economic reforms of the Bolivarian Revolution, the percentage was 24.7 in 2011.

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Chavez was elected on the “radical” idea that maybe the wealth generated by the exploitation of natural resources such as petroleum should be more equally redistributed between all walks of Venezuelan society. Thus Chavez launched a campaign to put the profits of the oil to work (the over-dependence of the Bolivarian regime on oil is a valid point of criticism) for the marginalized classes of society, to make sure that the majority of Venezuelans would be lifted out of poverty and the economics of strict subsistence when wealth was surrounding them. Chavez gave a voice to these disenfranchised sections of Venezuelan society.

Chavez created an economic revolution; his administration put full force in breaking down the barriers of social inequality in Venezuela, using the profits of the money-making oil industry to bring electricity and running water to the slums of Caracas and offering universal healthcare to all Venezuelans. Again, extremely “radical” ideas.

In 2002 the Chavez administration decided to take their democratization of the Venezuelan economy to another level through the complete nationalization of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). This put an end to the concentration of the greatest source of wealth in Venezuela in the hands of a few.

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It goes without saying that those who had benefited from the old way of things were not inclined to accept the coming changes. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the attempt of the Venezuelan government to implement a redistribution of agricultural land in the country.

75-80% of all land in Venezuela was owned by 5% of the population and 60% of all agricultural land was owned by 2%. The violence to repress the demands of landless campesinos had already claimed 300 lives nation-wide but this wasn’t worthy enough to be news.

Thus in 2002, the business community, big oil multinationals, right-wing media elite and the corporate magnates of Venezuela gave Pedro Carmona, president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, the presidency on a silver platter, ousting Chavez, despite the fact that he had been duly elected. The Caracas stock exchange hit record levels, all was well…

Little did they expect that 48 hours later, Venezuelans of all walks of life would descended upon the American Embassy where Chavez was held prisoner and bring him back to Miraflores, the presidential palace. Since the coup attempt didn’t work out exactly in the favor of the Venezuelan oligarchy, they decided to do what they do best start an economic war against the Bolivarian regime.

Back to the current context of unrest in Venezuela. The narrative this time is the same: the communist thugs of Chavez and company are forcing an economic dictatorship on the people of Venezuela and to defend their hold on the Venezuelan economy they employ violence.

But who are really the violent ones in this situation? Who has used violence since the time of colonial expansion in Venezuela, exploiting the indigenous population, the poor immigrating farmers, depriving them of their land, racking-in the big profits and letting the rest subsist with what’s left? Surely the same that are the instigators of the violence now.

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Maduro’s project to prevent Venezuelan companies from making more than 30% profit on any product on the market is directly linked to a new chapter of this economic war that has been waged by certain companies within Venezuelan society that have decided to use inflation as a political weapon. But nothing is new here, it’s just part of the never ending struggle for economic democracy aka real democracy and that’s exactly what this so-called revolution (it’s a counter-revolution) wants to prevent.

What is new and despicable in many ways is the fact that this economic war against the Venezuelan people is being carried out under the auspices of a student strike. Here is neo-liberal appropriation at its best: use the tactic that was used by left-wing movements in Chile and here in Quebec as the vehicle for a neo-liberal economic agenda. It’s hard to find the words to express how insulted I am to hear people insinuate that the Quebec or Chilean student strikes and the current Venezuelan student protest are in any way the same thing.

In conclusion, this is a war for democracy as many of the Venezuelan opposition say. This is war for economic democracy. If democracy means that you are entitled to the idea that you have the right to play a role in society, but that right never becomes anything else than symbolic then one’s relationship with democracy is but a platonic love. Be it said also to Leopoldo Lopez, the hero of this media sham, when you promote coups such as the one in 2002 against a democratically elected government, it’s hard to have any credibility when you call for more democracy.

A luta continua!

* photos by Joe Scarangella,

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