Jorge Martin, secretary of Hands Off Venezuela, an international organisation that campaigns in solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution and in opposition to imperialist intervention, recently visited Venezuela in the midst of the current upheaval rocking the nation.
You were in Venezuela in recent weeks. How does the reality that you witnessed contrast with one being presented by the western media?
There are a number of different points.
The first one is that the media is presenting this idea that in Venezuela we have groups of peaceful opposition demonstrators fighting for democracy and government repression that has killed over 50 people [the figure is now over 70]. This is all wrong.
There are big opposition demonstrations, they have been going on now for [over] two months and have attracted quite a lot of people.
But in most cases they have also degenerated into violent clashes in which opposition demonstrators, or groups in the vanguard of the opposition demonstrations, have used firearms, home-made explosives, weapons, rocket launchers and all sorts of stuff not only against the police, but also against educational institutions, state buildings, government housing projects, public transportation. They have even set up burning barricades outside maternity hospitals.
On top of this there has been gunfire coming from opposition rioters against civilians and against chavistas in general.
So it is hardly a picture of peaceful pro-democracy protesters…
Yes, it is not correct to say that these are peaceful opposition demonstrators, it is not correct to say that what they want is democracy or that what they want is elections.
In fact, their own leaders have admitted that what they want is “regime change”. For example, Maria Corina Machado wrote an article in El Comercio, in Peru, where she said “the first step is the overthrow of the government. Then we can talk about having elections in a different institutional context”.
Another thing I will say is that these protests are not taking place across the whole of the territory, not even the whole of the capital city. They are very concentrated in a number of states and municipalities, most of them ruled by opposition governors or mayors, particularly in Tachira, Merida, Barinas, Carabobo, Lara, and also in eastern Caracas.
So if you are in Caracas, you can go about your daily life without ever encountering an opposition demonstration or violence, which is concentrated in Altamira, in Chacao, to the east of the city, where the middle and upper class areas are.
This means the protests have not spread beyond the opposition’s bastions of influence?
This is something very telling you see in Caracas, namely that the opposition has not achieved one of its main aims, which was to bring the people from the barrios, the working class and poor areas in the hills around Caracas, into the protests. And this undercuts the idea that these protests are motivated by hunger and scarcity.
There are problems of scarcity of basic products, people’s diets have suffered in recent years, but the people that are most affected by this are the ones that remain firmly on the side of the Bolivarian Revolution.
The people in the middle and upper middle class areas, which are not so affected by these economic hardships, are the main subjects of these anti-government demonstrations.
And the last thing that contrasts with the picture that the media is giving is that there have been large pro-Bolivarian, chavista demonstrations.
On April 19 there was a very big one, on May Day there was a huge one that I was able to attend.
These major demonstrations have been supplemented by almost daily, smaller demonstrations of women, peasants, youth, etc, in defence of the Bolivarian Revolution and against this right-wing attempt to overthrow it.
And this is never shown by the mass media, not even referred to. So they are giving, as usual, an extremely one-sided picture of what is happening in Venezuela.
You mentioned that the opposition protests have not managed to spread to the barrios and in two months they have hardly made any progress. What do you think their strategy is at this point?
It is a bit difficult to say, because there are many different factors involved. But I would say that we have reached a point already where the opposition supporters are getting tired and frustrated by the lack of progress.
Above all, they have not achieved any substantial support for their protests in the working class and poor areas, but so far they have also not managed to break the state.
There has been no movement inside the army, even though the opposition leaders constantly appeal to the army to come out and overthrow the government.
Other than some statements by the State Prosecutor, that the opposition are trying to claim is on their side, there have not been any major breaches in terms of the state institutions. They have not pushed the government out, or into making substantial concessions that they could present as a victory.
So they are basically trapped, they are in a cul-de-sac, and what I see now is a section of the opposition demonstrators, and some of the leaders, going for a radicalisation of the protests, in terms of becoming more violent, using terrorist methods.
But I also think that if they do not manage to step up the mobilisation or achieve any of their aims, this will also push a section of them towards the negotiating table with the government. And this will create a big split within the opposition.
You have to remember that the leaders of the opposition are already very discredited among their own ranks because of their actions in October/November last year, when they basically called for big demonstrations, promising that the government was going to be overthrown, and then immediately switched towards the negotiating table, at which they did not achieve anything.
How do you see the situation developing in the coming months?
It is difficult to say. I would say the main problem in Venezuela, which is at the root of everything, is the fact the Bolivarian Revolution has lost a lot of support, and we need to identify why this has happened.
This was revealed in the National Assembly elections in December 2015. This was the first time, other than the constitutional referendum of 2007, that the Bolivarian Revolution lost an election contest.
The reason for this is not so much a shift of people from supporting chavismo to supporting the opposition, but a lot of people abstaining. The Bolivarians lost about a million votes between the presidential and the National Assembly elections, while the opposition’s increase was much smaller.
On the one hand this is explained by the economic crisis. But not just the economic crisis in itself, also the government’s handling of the economic crisis. Many people cannot see whether the government has got a strategy or not.
One day they are railing against the economic war carried out by private businesses, the next day they are calling on private businesses to collaborate, giving them money, making concessions, subsidies and so on.
There is also the impact of corruption, bureaucracy and reformism within the apparatus at the top of the Bolivarian Revolution which has created scepticism, pessimism and even cynicism among layers of people who previously supported the Revolution wholeheartedly. And this is the main problem.
Most people know that they are going through a difficult situation, and they are quite prepared to accept that, so long as they do not see chavista leaders and officials living in luxury. This goes against the grain of the Bolivarian Revolution.
The situation can only be turned around by measures that really with deal with the economic problems of the country. And this means a radical shift in the government’s policies on this question, as well as a change in the way that politics is conducted.
Right now there is a very bureaucratic, top-down way of doing everything. Even though there are big mobilisations, the people are not participating directly in their organisation, or in discussing the strategy of the movement. They are just allowed to respond, or not, to calls made from the top.
So I think that, unless and until these fundamental questions are solved, the perspective is one where this government will fall: either overthrown by direct force by the opposition or defeated in the elections.
Maduro has said that, rain or shine, presidential elections will take place next year. But they will take place in very bad conditions and it is very likely, all things standing as they are now, that chavismo will be defeated.
What would be the consequences of the opposition taking power?
That is something that really worries me, because the ascension of the opposition to power would be an unmitigated disaster.
They would solve the economic crisis, but they would make the workers pay for it. They would massively cut public spending, destroy all the social missions, privatise social housing, apply the IMF recipes, etc.
They would bring products back to the shelves, but at prices that no one would be able to afford.
It would bring a massive backlash similar to what we have already seen to take place in Argentina and Brazil. But on a higher scale, because the depth and reach of the Bolivarian Revolution is nothing comparable to what happened in the past in Argentina or Brazil with the previous governments.
Moreover, this will be accompanied with a lynch-mob against anyone who looks like or is suspected of being chavista, a massive purge of the state apparatus and institutions, persecution and suppression of democratic rights of the chavista working class and poor majority. This is quite clear.
And it is from this point of view that I am making the criticism of the government policies, because I think the policies of the government are not conducive to defending the Bolivarian Revolution but leading directly to disaster.