Worker Empowerment Stalls in Venezuela as Left Unity Fractures / By W. T. Whitney Jr.

Indigenous spokespeople, Venezuela (archive) |

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president from 1999 until 2013, inspired and led a “Bolivarian Revolution” that sought independence from U.S. domination, regional integration and so-called socialism of the 21st century. Obstacles are many: capitalism in control of the national economy, unrelenting rightwing political opposition, U.S. intervention – and longstanding political divisions among left forces.

Worker empowerment languishes in such a context. We offer an explanation, and doing so, attribute the divisions to differing approaches to the predicament of Venezuelan workers.

Several months ago, union workers in many sectors were vigorously protesting low wages and demanding that wages be paid in dollars, to counter inflation. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president after Chavez’s death in 2013, reprimanded them for not “understanding the effects of the blockade and the oligarchy’s economic war.”

The government faces terrible challenges. Contributing to economic disaster are U.S. sanctions and depressed oil prices over ten years or so. Oil exports have accounted for most of Venezuela’s export income. Economic crisis surely diminishes prospects for worker empowerment.

Impact of economic crisis

Recent developments tell much of that story. The U.S. Justice Department on May 4 lifted restraints on the sale of Citgo company’s assets to the creditors of the Venezuelan state and of Venezuela’s state -owned oil company, PDVSA. Citgo is PDVSA’s U.S.-based oil company. Worth $13 billion, it owns three oil refineries and 4000 gasoline stations.

U.S. authorities confiscated Citgo in 2019. It gave Citgo to those rightwing opponents of the Maduro government who between 2015 and 2021 constituted a majority in Venezuela’s National Assembly. This group will be managing the sales of Citgo shares to the company’s high-rolling creditors worldwide.

Rather than retrieve annual Citgo profits of a billion dollars or so, the government has lost them. Income from the sales of oil products had enabled the government to pay for healthcare, schools, housing, and more. The larger picture is that $30 billion in Venezuelan assets have been “blocked, retained, or confiscated.”

The U.S. State Department on May 3 announced that $347 million in Venezuelan funds now frozen in U.S. banks will be returned, not to Venezuela’s government, but to that former opposition bench in the National Assembly. For the United States, that’s Venezuela’s government.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan workers are struggling to survive; worker empowerment is a distant dream.  Presently, one third of Venezuelan children are undernourished. The poverty rate has fallen a little but remains at 50%. In one of the world’s most unequal societies, wealthy Venezuelans have access to imported goods, dollars, and the proceeds from illegal businesses. The latter make up 20% of the national economy.

The economic crisis hurts Venezuela’s working class. It impedes efforts to strengthen it. We must know the extent to which Venezuela’s government supports workers.

Shifting alliances and labor rights

President Maduro in February 2018 was seeking support in presidential elections that year from the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV).  He appeared at the PCV headquarters and declared the PCV “to be the principal party in founding and defending democracy in the 20th century.”

The government’s political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and the PCV signed a “Unitary Framework Agreement,” which backed “the rights of the working class and the working people.”  The PCV did support Maduro in elections in May 2018.

Within months, however, the government introduced its “Program of Recuperation, Growth, and Economic Prosperity,” which, according to labor historian Omar Vázquez Heredia, provided for “major devaluation of the official exchange rate, elimination of price controls and import tariffs …[and] regressive labor reforms … [such as] elimination of the right to strike.”  He adds that dollars had already been disappearing through smuggling, hoarding, import fraud, and governmental corruption.

The new anti-worker measures showed up in the government’s “Memorandum 2792” of October 2018. ThePCV critiqued the government’s ready support for business interests and questioned its delivery of scarce dollars to foreign creditors and to Venezuela’s business sectors to help them import and distribute foreign goods.

Analyst Héctor Alejo Rodríguez notes that the government, through its October memorandum, “flattened the wages for all sectors and unilaterally cancelled all the collective bargaining agreements of the workers.” Workers, he points out, were already dealing with “acute shortages, loss of social gains, deterioration of public services and the systematic destruction of [their] incomes and rights.”

At a May Day rally in 2023, former labor leader Maduro told workers that funds were unavailable for salary increases, also that their “economic war bonus” would continue and their monthly food bonuses increase. The minimum wage would be equivalent to $5.25 per month – and lose value due to inflation.    

President Chavez created the “Great Patriotic Pole” electoral coalition. The PCV joined, and backed Chavez in the 2006 and 2012 elections, and Maduro in the 2013 elections. Chavez created the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in 2007. He counted on smaller leftist parties to relinquish their identity and join the PSUV.

The PCV and other parties refused, provoking Chavez in 2008 to threaten the PCV’s destruction.  PCV leader Oscar Figuera declared that his Party would still affiliate with the Patriotic Pole, but would remain independent. After all, as he noted, “We have just completed 77 years struggling for socialism in Venezuela.”

The PCV broke with the PSUV in 2020 and formed a new electoral coalition, the People’s Revolutionary Alternative (APR). Party leaders say they are “Chavista” and anti-imperialist, but want oil monies used more for industrial development and rural productivity and less for paying on foreign debt or for capitalists to use as they wish.  

Meanwhile, the government stepped up “criminalization of labor protests” and forced the retirement of many labor leaders. APR candidates have been dismissed from jobs, or jailed. The PSUV presented speakers who denounce the PCV and at the same time falsely claim to have been PCV members or to have been expelled by the PCV.

Some clarity

Mostly tellingly, a flurry of killings has recently taken the lives of PCV activists. In Apure state alone, in 2023, thugs murdered Communist journalist José Urbina and Communist community leader Juan de Dios Hernández.

In Venezuela presently the prospects for worker empowerment, not to speak of working-class political power, are dismal. A distant observer lacks full knowledge of local realities and is ill-equipped to assign blame. In any case caution is the watchword in passing judgment that might detract from unity in the broader political movement.

Now a neighbor weighs in.  Writing May 8 in Seminario Voz, the Colombian Communist Party’s newspaper, Ricardo Arenalescriticizes the PSUV. He cites the killings and false PSUV accusations.

Arenales cites a communication from the PCV Political Bureau to Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who on April 1 met with   

representatives of Venezuela’s rightwing political opposition and who was about to meet with regional foreign ministers. Petro is seeking to ease political conflict within Venezuela and somehow to end U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela.

The PCV letter calls for negotiators to attend to “the political and social forces that are on the fringes of the polarizing diatribe.” The PCV rejects “a pact among the elites … [which] is built on the ruin of the popular majorities” and which represents “the interference of foreign powers in the solution of conflicts that exclusively concern Venezuelans.”

Arenales implies that rightwing powerbrokers in Venezuela and abroad use negotiations to incapacitate the PCV. He mentions that, “under the heading of sovereign resolution of conflicts in the brother country, … the right of the Venezuelan Communists to exist and struggle cannot be denied. For that to happen would be a serious contradiction in the building of democracy.”

Arenales reports that “parties and intellectuals of the world” and regional groupings in Latin America like the Sao Paulo Forum are proposing mediation processes for the sake of “rapprochement among the PCV, PSUV and Venezuelan government.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.

The Crisis in Pakistan and its Consequences / by Saulat Nagi

Image Courtesy: AP

Former PM Imran Khan’s deepened the ideological crisis in Pakistan to solve its economic crisis. His strategy only brought the legitimacy of the state itself in doubt.

“Uneasy lies the head”, Shakespeare writes, “that wears a crown”. In Pakistan, the ones prepared to play the game according to the rules set by the hegemonic powers are graced-or disgraced- to wear the crown. Thanks to the unending history of the army’s absolute control over the reins of power, the legitimacy of the power wielder, no matter an army dictator or a civilian figure, and their authority over the state control remains illegitimate in the eyes of most Pakistanis. For, they know the ruling class derives its power with the consent of the metropolitan capital and the GHQ.

Over a slight dissent, the dominant powers can withdraw the consent and replace one set of the ruling class with another eager to adjust to the designs of the real power brokers. Hence, the uneasiness of the ruling class is limited to winning the nod of the two visibly invisible gods. No wonder, living constantly under the shadow of Hades, with a barrel of a gun to its temple, Pakistani society has failed to develop the social base and historical conditions of bourgeois democracy.

Being both creators and creations of history, people learn from experience. In the global south, they are fully conversant with the outcome of the imposition of democracy from Iraq to Libya. They know that for the absence of economic content, western democracy has become a fetish, an excuse to invade countries of the global south to rob their resources. Once the countries it chooses to put on a democratic diet collapse, the western imperialist powers walk away, leaving behind anarchy. Pakistan is no exception, the war ‘of’ terror has exhausted them economically and weak democratic institutions have added to their misery hence despite frequent elections in the post-Zia-ul-Haq period the people of Pakistan have little appetite left for this futile exercise.

The 1968-69 era was the only time the people of Pakistan rose against both the metropolitan capital and native bourgeoisie with revolutionary zeal. The movement started by students spread immediately to workers and masses of both wings and led to the removal of an apparently invincible army dictator celebrating his decade of decadence. Both Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto converted the revolutionary situation into electoral success. The massive socialism-inspired mobilisation of the radical middle class and working class was unprecedented in the history of Pakistan. Bhutto’s half-hearted attempts to introduce an Islamic version of socialism after the fall of Dhaka, his failure and ultimate repression of the working classes, led to his downfall. Later, the autocrat regime of General Zia ensured the punishment of Punjab for its radicalism. Islam was shoved down people’s throats, and through the reign of terror, the feudal and comprador bourgeoisie were imposed on the masses. The crisis of the state deepened.

Pakistan’s crisis has always been three-pronged: economic, ideological, and institutional. They have overwhelmed its superstructure—army, bureaucracy, judiciary, and political parties. None have any socio-economic program, which in turn deepened the crisis of the economic base. Each political party coming to power with scarce resources struggles to solve it but, on failing, blames the previous regimes—especially the Bhutto regime that inherited a rump Pakistan after losing its eastern colony. For his class affiliation, Bhutto was never faithful to the party manifesto of implementing socialism. Instead, he laid the basis of religious hypocrisy by declaring one religious sect as non-Muslim. And as if the fall of Dhaka was not enough, he invaded Baluchistan and gave the army a reason to unleash a regime of terror.

The demise of the Soviet Union left people with no alternative ideology to follow. To fill the vacuum, the political Islam backed by Saudi money and overt US support, which scarcely had room in the Muslim world, was brought to the fore. With the army’s backing, Nahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia, Brotherhood in the Middle East and Jamat-e-Islami in Pakistan played key roles in killing and repressing Marxist elements in each country. Younger Pakistanis, nearly over 50% of the population, have not heard about an alternative ideology barring Islam. And this, despite tall claims, could not change the material conditions of ordinary citizens.

The religious slogan-based ideology is an attempt to shift responsibility for changing the material conditions of the people to a metaphysical domain where individual piety, instead of collective effort, is given significance. Fully aware of their limitations, the political parties and those in power insist that people must follow religious tenets zealously, adding insult to the injury adding more salt to unhealed wounds. Faith based ideology not only provides the state with the logic to manage its affairs through coercive means but also gives its repressive apparatus more muscle and authenticity to subdue contradictions. The present crisis in Pakistan is not the cause but the outcome of these irreconcilable contradictions.

Bringing Imran Khan into power was an attempt to postpone the imminent crisis, whose tempestuousness was apprehended by the visibly invisible forces ruling Pakistan since its inception. The elections were engineered to divert attention from a failing economy, massive inflation, and the spectre of penury.

An army keen to grow its share of the pie in a shrinking exchequer knew that an obliged and grateful premier was more likely to give in to demands than the old politicians—representatives of the civil bourgeoisie—accustomed to bargaining with the army for bigger shares of the exploits of relentless expropriation of the masses. The tension between the civil and military bourgeoisie was at its peak during Nawaz Sharif’s era when the Panama Papers case rocked his boat.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf was an untried Trojan horse. Despite having old corrupt members of Assemblies who always remain in power, in its fold, it was run by a charismatic, populist man of destiny eager to win power on any terms. With an unblemished past and the far-right ideology of eliminating corruption—an integral part of property structure—by building a fantasy called the medieval state of Medina, he became a ‘chosen person’ to lead the people. He mobilised the petty bourgeoisie afflicted with the religious malaise and a large section of the lumpenproletariat that saw no future in the system, in the name of honesty, a rationalization of vindictiveness. The clean-shaven version of conservative Islam gave temporary solace to their bewildering thoughts.

However, corruption is inherent in the capitalist system, as is anarchy, and donning the religious robe does not make the ruling class less parasitic. The corruption card exhausted its utility sooner rather than later. After initial hesitation, Imran was forced to approach the IMF, the metropolitan capital, to fund the army if not run the economy. The IMF followed its logic and forced the government to continuously increase the prices of electricity, gas, and consumable commodities. Even the federal bank, the symbol of state sovereignty, was bartered. The more he failed, the more he emphasised on corruption and religion, based on the mystified version of a mythological state of Medina; never realising that carving out changes to the predicates of an existing property structure, subservient to the laws of peripheral capitalism, is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Finding a solution to economic ills by deepening the ideological crisis proved counterproductive.

The army’s continuous active participation in the political field had a dialectical effect. It not only brought pelf, power, and politics within the army but also the reactionary Taliban’s version of Islam dividing it both horizontally and vertically. The extension of the COAS, the dispute on transferring the former ISI chief and the support base for Imran highlighted the cleavage within the army. If removing Nawaz exposed the political indulgence of the military in state affairs, Imran’s removal will bring even a heavier cost. The frustrated populist leader—the Pakistani edition of Erdogan—would likely go to any extent to redeem his image and regain power. For now, he has decided to expose US interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs, leaving the metropolitan capital aside, for he belongs to that class. But tomorrow, in despair, he may expose the secrets of his former mentors.

Punjab, the bastion of the army’s power, was clearly divided after the ouster of Nawaz through the proverbial judicial coup arranged by the praetorian guards. Now, a sudden shift to the posture of “neutrality”, has bewildered Imran who is targeting the armed forces on that account, and his followers are following the suit pointing fingers to the nakedness of the king. The foreign conspiracy theme and the story of the betrayal of the praetorian guards will be his wild cards in the next election.

No matter which hue of the political right forms the government, the economic crisis is there to stay. It needs structural changes. The budget of the repressive force needs drastic cuts. The process of accumulation through the dispossession of the public must end. Pakistan imports a large amount of wheat and meslin from Ukraine; in 2021 alone, 477 million US dollars’ worth were imported. The Russia-Ukraine war will hurt wheat imports, as is already happening in several countries. Food shortages are likely to lead to an Arab Spring kind of revolt in Pakistan, further damaging the hegemony of the civil-military ruling class. That, probably, was the main reason behind Imran’s Russian sojourn and Pakistan’s abstention from voting against Russia on the human rights issue at the United Nations.

The future of Pakistan is not sanguine, if not completely dark. The concept of strategic depth, military hegemony over civilian affairs, and financial scams to grab more of the exchequer have come home to roost. People fighting for their livelihood have no appetite for the non-existent Indian threat. Even the army has pushed the Kashmir agenda off the table. Marxist theorist Aijaz Ahmad wrote that economic, institutional, and ideological crises of state power “have exacerbated the crisis of the legitimacy of the state itself, to the extent that the perennially unspoken question of Pakistani politics—whether the state of Pakistan is itself worth having or not—is being asked more openly and rather frequently”.

The author is an Australian Pakistani writer, columnist and academic associated with Western Sydney University. The views are personal.

Newsclick, April 14, 2022,