A currency devaluation, military expropriations, demonstrations, resignations, TV channel closures, more demonstrations – it’s been an eventful start to 2010 in Venezuela.
The country hadn’t even returned to work from the Christmas break when they were hit by the first coñazo, that being the devaluation of the bolívar from 2.15/US$1 to 2.6/US$1. More punishing for Venezuelans, as El Libertario note, was the creation of a new exchange rate – the so called ”dólar petrolera” – at 4.3/US$1, which will affect the import of anything the government deems to be ‘non-essential’. In one fell swoop, the new exchange rate has doubled the price of all electronic domestic goods, cars, cigarettes, alcohol, amongst other goods. Rather curiously, the announcement was made on 8th January, a Friday night, to be executed the following Monday 11th, leading to a 48-hour mad consumer rush in Caracas. The morning saw bizarre scenes of shopkeepers battling would-be buyers to close their shutters early in an attempt to keep their shelves full for Monday, in order to sell their goods at the new rate. On my street, the Guardia Nacional arrived to protect one Arabic electronic store.
The government explained the sudden presence of soldiers in shop fronts as an enforcement of ‘fair’ prices. At this point, the regime was still largely denying that their announcement would cause inflation, and tried to shift the blame for rising prices onto “speculation” by big chains. Chains which refused to comply with Chávez’ order to keep their prices down saw their military occupation turn permanent, as was most prominently the case with the French-owned supermarket chain of Exito, which is now a state asset. Other expropriations have taken place unofficially, with bands of franelas rojas (redshirts aka chavistas) occupying shop floors at the (unconfirmed) behest of the local authority.
While the chavista regime did verbal gymnastics in an attempt to justify the devaluation (dismissed as “neoliberal” by Chávez himself just last year, when the IMF made it a condition to giving the country a loan), claiming that the increased incomes would be reinvested in the misiones (the wide-ranging, but now floundering, governmental social programmes), the devaluation spelt out in starkest terms - even for the most isolated, uninformed Venezuelan - the torrid state of the national economy. After 11 years of so called ‘socialism’, the average Venezuelan has seen his/her purchasing power fall dramatically: figures show a flat in Caracas is now worth 500 months’ wages of a minimum salary, as opposed to 220 in 1998. Desperately trying to shore up his support amongst the unions and working class, Chávez announced a staggered 25% increase in the minimum wage, a measure which - patronisingly – depends on the working class not doing any maths, since in real terms it’s a drop in the ocean of the wage cut enforced by the devaluation. In a nation in which approximately 85% of all goods are imported (including 60% of all foodstuffs), El Libertario calculate that the doubling in price of most imported goods will lead to a 62% real term decrease for the 60% odd of Venezuelan workers who are paid minimum wage.
Moreover, with reducing the national debt now an economic priority for the incumbents, the efficiency of the state industries will now, once again, be under review. Books-fiddling at PDVSA (the state-owned oil company) largely kept it afloat during the oil price’s plummet in 2009, but the sweetheart deals with Cuba and other anti-imperialist allies with goods in exchange for cheap oil have restricted the profitability of the nation’s main export. Meanwhile, the misiones, although good PR and excellent news for unemployment figures, have ultimately failed in their developmentalist aim of creating a skilled, efficient reserve labour force, and as they continue to malfunction and stutter, Chávez must be looking for a way out from the one policy that has retained his populist appeal for all of these years.
However, as the episode over electricity rationing demonstrated, populism itself is still very much the staple of chavismo. The day after the devaluation came into force, January 12th, saw the implementation of electricity rationing in Greater Caracas, with each of the city’s six parroquias due to endure four of every 48 hours without power. On the first night, the region around the Estadio Olímpico, the sports stadium where Caracas’ baseball matches are held, was scheduled for a blackout from 12-4am, leading to a crucial match being abandoned at 11pm, with the two teams tied. In a nation full of baseball fanatics, this was a gross miscalculation on the government’s part, and the whole city – loyal chavistas included – were furious. With confusion abounding over the timetable, Chávez suddenly postponed the programme and fired the Electricity Minister just before midnight on the second night, some two minutes before my zone was due to go dark for the first time. A new schedule has supposedly been announced though, with the programme due to start after the end of the baseball season. Blackouts have also been restricted to the daytime (when temperatures can reach 35 degrees), as the homicide and robbery toll in the barrios affected by night-time power cuts made ugly reading.
A scarce few days later, the annual commemoration of the popular toppling of military dictator Pérez Jiménez fell on Saturday, leading to the opposition calling a ”gran marcha” against chavismo. The government – obviously - responded by calling its own demonstration. The rendezvous for the chavista demonstration was right outside my current address, and, as well as the comparatively small numbers (previous marches would have shut the city down), I noted the subdued atmosphere, with no chants and few banners. The chavistas appeared to be running out of ideas for slogans! Chávez though, had no shortage, as he demonstrated when he addressed his supporters in Plaza O’Leary, demanding "absolute loyalty because I am the people, dammit!" His messianism was matched by some of his supporters, who were quoted in the newspapers claiming that recent events correlate with the Bible, or are the fault of "the atmosphere".
Meanwhile, the opposition bleated feebly about democracy on Globovisión (conveniently forgetting about the failed 2002 coup, of course), while RCTV allegedly refused to broadcast a government message late on Saturday night. This was just the excuse the regime needed to finally shut down the channel, which had supported the 2002 coup attempt (with their owners funding it) and were booted off of terrestrial in 2007 in revenge. In response, just like three years earlier, right wing students from the private universities are once again marching. Last Monday saw the death of two students (one chavista and one antichavista) in the Andean city of Mérida, both at the hands of “armed civilians”. This was followed by a flurry of wild rumours in Caracas, largely sent by text message. When, at midnight, Caracas finally did erupt into shouts and explosions, it was – somewhat inevitably – the celebrations of Leones de Caracas levelling their series with Magallanes de Valencia at 2-2. Baseball, once again, took priority.
Not, of course, that the series finale was without its power cuts: three were in fact registered over the seven nights of play – the last one happening immediately before the final innings of season, with Leones about to defeat Magallanes for the Championship in Magallanes’ stadium in Valencia. Due to Chávez’ stated affiliation to the Valencia team, shouts of ”ES EL GOBIERNO!” could be heard in the bar I was drinking in. Eventually, the lights came back on and Leones were able to complete their triumph.
The demonstrations though, continued into their fifth day on Friday. The arterial roads of Valencia – Venezuela’s industrial powerhouse, some two hours outside of Caracas – were blockaded for much of the week, while human rights groups and international governments have started to raise their eyebrows at photographs of injured kids, pockmarked by rubber bullets and choking on tear gas. In Caracas, the private universities have been joined by members of the big state uni – Universidad Central de Venezuela - leading to clashes between opposing cliques wanting to dictate the marchers’ ‘message’.
Reports of clashes in rural areas – away from large, urban universities – leave me wondering whether these marches will generalise beyond the petty gripes of rich students, whose complaints about a misinformational TV channel pale in comparison with the economic woes the nation as a whole is facing. Some of the shrewder ‘student representatives’ have attempted to link their actions to electricity rationing and the devaluation. There are cautious signs of their demonstrations and motorway blockades slipping out of their control and beyond the manipulations of the opposition parties, who will only milk them for their own gain in this year’s parliamentary elections. While Caracas has been the focus of lazy news reporters for TV channels and the printed press, all of which have a stake with either Chávez or the opposition, the capital has been somewhat subdued in comparison with conflicts in El Interior. Outside of Caracas, the chavista-antichavista split is not quite as strong, and some of the franelas rojas mobilising must be feeling the pinch too, as well as flinching at the actions of quasi-paramilitaries on the streets against unarmed – if irritating – young men and women. We can but wait and see whether events develop or peter out.
As for the Chávez regime itself, it has spent the last few days making thinly-veiled threats against the opposition. On Tuesday, it was ‘leaked’ that the milicias bolivarianas (Chávez’ secretive volunteer reserve army of workers) consist of nearly 150,000 individuals “ready to defend the people”. On Thursday, he warned the opposition against attempting to organise another coup, telling national TV that “some people are already inciting serving soldiers and senior military figures…[this time] I won’t be that Chávez of 2002 who reached the verge of being overthrown”. Accusing those who criticise the regime of being ”guarimberos” (troublemakers/coup-plotters) is nothing new for Chávez, but the spectre of a coup – most likely coming from dissidents high up in the supposedly “socialist” and “educated” military - seems to be ever more present in Venezuela.
In amongst all this mess, Chávez’ Vicepresident and Defense Minister, alongside his wife (the Environment Minister), suddenly resigned from their ministerial posts. In yet another PR offensive, we were assured that both resignations were “purely personal” in nature and do not equate to any disagreement with the policies of El Jefe Comandante. It’s still unclear whether these resignations were forced, or whether the Carrizales pair represent rats leaving a sinking ship before it receives an attack from the armed forces. A leading sociologist – ever the ruling class’ barometer – recently compared Venezuela to a pressure cooker: “in a state of collective irritability” over “everyday” issues like water and electricity rationing and inflation. The mood, he wrote, is in fact similar to that of immediately before the caracazo riots of 1989. Time will tell as to what will happen in the coming days, weeks and months.