Researcher Luis Bonilla-Molina draws some preliminary conclusions about the ongoing Mexico negotiations between the government and US-backed opposition.

Venezuela is a nuisance to Latin American and Western elites: it dared to propose a different path to neoliberal capitalism right when no other options were thought to exist. Both local and foreign elites have gone to great ends to destroy this initiative.

Most recently, foreign-sponsored political violence added new elements to the country’s democratic life. The greatest hope of the ongoing Mexico negotiations [between the government and US-backed opposition] is that violence as a political tool will be averted and the normality of democratic institutions restored.

Another hope coming from Mexico is that criminal economic sanctions will be lifted; the measures have only served to cause suffering to the people, force the government to circle down in the worst of its cycles, and nourish the discourse about the failure of the socialist path. Unfortunately, the urgency of improving the wages and living conditions of those who live off of their work is not included on the agenda in Mexico.

After the failure of the [2019] Oslo-sponsored negotiations, a new workgroup has been established under the auspices of the governments of Mexico and Norway with accompaniment from Russia. This is not the continuation of previous talks, but rather a new chapter.

In Mexico, the Venezuelan government met with one of the nine fractions of the Venezuelan opposition ̶ the fraction most closely linked to the US government ̶ at the headquarters of the Museum of Anthropology. Any final agreement between the two parties may open the floodgates to allow a return to people-centered politics, leaving behind the political maneuvering which has dominated the daily life of Venezuelans.

Politics, economics and geopolitics

Most analyses of the Mexico negotiations tend to overestimate the national dimension without taking into account the economic and geopolitical dynamics associated with the process. Commentators get stuck in the bipolarity of agreement or disagreement and have a hard time understanding what is happening as a process.

The current Venezuelan tension is the result of not being able to politically resolve the economic crisis that erupted almost forty years ago (1983), the social crisis of the Caracazo (1989) and the geopolitical crisis (globalization and internationalization of capital) of the 1980s. Government-led, splinter, and anti-system movements were all unable to build a path to resolve this situation in the 1990s.

Chávez’s electoral triumph (1998), which resulted from a broad alliance, was built on the basis of resolving the crisis. During the first three years, Chávez emphasized the social aspect of the crisis because he had fewer options at the economic level and serious difficulties at the geopolitical one.

The sector of the importing bourgeoisie that had backed Chávez in 1998 soon felt threatened by news laws on land tenure, control of the oil rent and the redefinition of the role of state institutions. The 2002 coup d’état, the popular insurgency to return Chávez to power, and the break with the bourgeois sector that had backed him created a new situation: the breakdown of the state-bourgeoisie chain so necessary in a country which imports a very large percentage of what is consumed.

Thus, a phenomenon arose that had not been seen since the period of Juan Vicente Gómez (Venezuelan dictator 1908-35), in which the state — threatened by the rupture generated by the 2002 coup d’état — granted import licenses to sectors close to the government bureaucracy to try to solve the supply of products. This process started to generate a new network of profit accumulation and perverse relationships with the state, as well as a new bourgeoisie associated with the process of Bolivarian transformation.

However, some of the long-standing bourgeois groups – such as the Mendoza or Cisneros Groups – continued to receive incentives and support due to the new importing bourgeoisie’s difficulties in producing goods locally or as a result of the exchange of information for access to a portion of the oil rent. Let us add that this development generated a number of contradictions between the declared socialist course and the bourgeois castes (old and new), which for reasons of space we cannot examine here.

These contradictions between the old and new bourgeoisie (2002-2012) — for whom the power dispute is a fundamentally economic one that is publicly expressed with an ideological edge — comes in addition to the crises of the 1980s. Most of the popular sectors, who are committed to a socialist course and for whom Chávez was trying to build an institutional support structure that increasingly threatened the old and new bourgeoisie, tended to not notice these contradictions.

While Chávez promoted policies that reversed the [historical] accumulated social debt, he also promoted the geopolitical insertion of the country [into the international arena] based on not only anti-imperialist (fundamentally anti-US) sentiment, but also renewing a non-aligned logic through alliances with progressive governments and consolidating a strategic relationship with Cuba. This is a factor that breaks with the dependent and privileged relationship that the US had with Venezuela through the twentieth century, and this is an aspect that affects the negotiations in Mexico today and that should not go unnoticed.

Chávez did not arbitrate the results of the crisis which began in the 1980s nor assume a mediating role among bourgeois fractions. Rather, he placed his bets on the radicalization of the process from below, letting a new bourgeoisie emerge as part of an economic sustainability strategy. His illness and subsequent death occurred when the «game» was still on and in full swing: when no bourgeois fraction had imposed itself nor had the social reality allowed for a new intra-class correlation of forces to take hold. Chávez’s final «commune or nothing» call in his «strike at the helm» speech reiterated that his bet was for the popular camp to lead.

Thus, the arrival of Maduro occured in a practically unexpected way, in the midst of a brutal fall in oil prices that put the rent-based model in check, and in the midst of the accumulation and conformation of bourgeoisies from the appropriation of foreign currencies generated by the oil industry. The political sectors associated with the old bourgeoisie understood that this fall in rent income implied the possibility of generating a rupture that may have allowed them to regain control of the government.

Between 2014 and 2017 different insurrectionary activities, agitations and mobilizations failed to oust Maduro from power. The governments of Trump, [Colombian President Iván] Duque and [Chilean President Sebastián] Piñera were the players behind the greatest threats of invasion and the beginning of a civil war; while the 2019 Cúcuta incident was the high point of the escalation of violence.

In the midst of such a spiral of violence and with political polarization on the surface, people-centered politics were impossible. The migration crisis, especially from 2014 to 2021, affected the opposition much more in political terms, losing as it did an important part of its ability to mobilize. However, not all those who left are opposition, most are citizens seeking to survive the economic ravages of the crisis.

Maduro: the strongman of Venezuelan politics

Unlike Chávez, Maduro not only assumed the role of referee and mediator between the bourgeois fractions in order to stabilize the political situation, but also worked on articulation scenarios and models between national capital and the transnational sector. Those who assign Maduro a supporting role in the Venezuelan play are mistaken. Maduro may not be a cultured man, but he is a shrewd politician: he has imposed the logic of trade union bureaucracy on Venezuelan politics.

Since coming to power, he has slowly become the strongman, seeing off any threat. First, he did this by weakening and fragmenting the opposition, by combining carrots (agreements with fractions of the parties, support for dissidents, legalization of politics) and sticks (persecution of organizations, disqualification, imprisonment of rebellious opponents).

Second, by moving the moral reference point of Chavismo away from the structure of the parties and the government — to the point of leading some of them to the terrible mistake of meeting with the opposition figure who was promoting an attempted invasion — thereby emptying the possibility of building a traditional Chavista ethical reference with real political options.

Third, by expelling the financial architect of the Bolivarian bourgeoisie [Rafael Ramírez] from his environment and forcing him into European exile, removing his shadow and consolidating his [Maduro’s] own leadership in this sector.

Fourth, by progressively diminishing other leaders’ power bases in the governing party, many of whom turned from hopeful replacements to wild cards (the recent PSUV internal elections demonstrated this, reducing the power sectors in the government to four leading figures: Maduro, Delcy and Jorge Rodríguez, Diosdado Cabello).

Fifth, by establishing a new model of military control in the Armed Forces, consolidating the leadership of a non-charismatic but skilled fouché military officer class.

Sixth, by becoming «the hand that rocks the cradle» of the oppositions: today all oppositions gravitate around what Maduro says or does, practically without any real capacity for initiative.

Seventh, by developing a model of authoritarianism with almost total impunity against those who protest the terrible effects of the economic crisis, especially on the working class’ leadership and grassroots.

Eighth, by using the criminal US blockade against Venezuela in his favor as justification for the inter-bourgeois arbitration policies he seeks to develop.

Ninth, by building a narrative that is presented as a continuity of Chavismo, but which in reality expresses an attempt to solve the bourgeois crisis generated in the 1980s from the seat of the state.

Tenth, by instrumentalizing hopelessness in the face of the effects of excessive inflation, the astronomical devaluation of the currency and the almost total loss of purchasing power.

Eleventh, by achieving automatic solidarity from the majority of the Latin American left, removing their critical capacity. Certainly, Maduro has lost support on the radical left, but in the orthodox and progressive left the debate about Venezuela’s labor relations [which led many on the “radical international left” to withdraw its support of his administration] is still pending.

Twelfth, by developing a structural adjustment program for the Venezuelan economy with a profound social and wage impact that is justified by sanctions. If the sanctions are lifted, it will be the now weakened guilds and trade unions which will have to fight important battles according to the interests of labor.

Mass migration, which left almost all opposition political parties without a significant part of the protest army (and vote base), has further helped Maduro in this. While it is true that only a small group of those who emigrated can be located on the periphery of the opposition parties, they were their strong base for mobilization.

Maduro is the strongman of Venezuelan politics, and his delegation goes to the negotiations in Mexico with a clear agenda:

a) to dismantle the US sanctions against the Venezuelan economy in order to fulfill its role as a referee between bourgeoisies and as the determining factor in social containment;

b) to generate a cohabitation agreement that distances political and social conflict with the different sectors of the bourgeoisie;

c) having learned during these years that the opposition depends on the economic sector, Maduro will try to reach an agreement on the new rules of the political game in exchange for turning the state into the economic guarantor of their activities;

d) to remove the possibility of an opposition-led effort for a recall referendum (by making the opposition understand that in the upcoming November 21 elections they should concentrate on mayors and councils and not on governorships);

e) to build into the social imagination the idea that there now exist multiple oppositions who are so divided that they are to blame for the fact that there is no political change.

In Mexico, Maduro begins to build another geopolitical approach that is closer to social democracy than to the old non-aligned concept.

Apart from a handful of statements to calm internal sectors, socialism has been reduced to being a conjuring trick for the government. It would not be surprising, in fact, that in a hypothetical process, the [ruling] United Socialist Party changes its name by erasing the word Socialism to liquidate the US establishment’s last resistance to offering sanctions relief, without, of course, causing a rupture with Cuba.

The groups opposing the Venezuelan government are fragmented and, in many cases, links between them are by now broken.

All groups are reactively anchored to the government’s agenda and lack initiative. They have also suffered from increasing disenchantment from their bases due to a double discourse that combines verbal radicalism with permanent acts of conciliation.

The first group is made up of the actors which met in [the government-opposition negotiations in] Mexico. They are close to the original political fractions of the parties Primero Justicia (Julio Borges and Henrique Capriles), Voluntad Popular (Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó), Un Nuevo Tiempo (Manuel Rosales) and Acción Democrática (Henry Ramos Allup). These are parties that have been juridically intervened and whose [current] authorities have been designated ad hoc. One of the points of negotiation in Mexico is the return of the party acronyms, accounts and properties [to their original leaders]. This opposition group is called the ‘G-4’.

Most of these parties are renewed political expressions of the interests of the old bourgeoisie. Their agenda is linked to their class interests and transnational capital. They seek harmonious integration between national and transnational capital: a task that has had difficulties since the 1980s.

Faced with the new geopolitical global distribution, these parties seek to control the state (or a fraction of it) to capture the revenue from the extractivist logic that capital has assigned to the region within the fourth industrial revolution framework and the consumption of imported goods. It is a sector without an alternative capitalist project to extractivism.

The second group is made up of business leaders who act as their own representatives since they do not trust the political mediators that pretend to represent them. Its most visible face is [Polar Group President] Lorenzo Mendoza, who has not ruled out being a presidential candidate.

The third grouping is the so-called Democratic Alliance, which brings together parties Avanzada Progresista (Henry Falcón) and the so-called «scorpions» (authorities designated by the judicial intervention) of Democratic Action (José Bernabé), Primero Justicia, Voluntad Popular, COPEI, Venezuela Unida, Movimiento Ecológico de Venezuela, Unidad Visión Venezuela, Compromiso País, Bandera Roja, UPP89, Opina, Soluciones (Claudio Fermín), Movimiento Republicano, NUVIPA, Prociudadanos, Movimiento al Socialismo, Min-Unidad and Alianza Centro. This group is the one that has reached the most agreements and partial negotiations with the government. For this reason, they are considered to be a government-linked opposition by the G-4 parties.

In the fourth group are the most radical players (María Corina Machado, Antonio Ledezma and Andrés Velásquez), who promote the application of the [OAS-backed military pact] Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty (TIAR) and a US invasion. They are isolated after the ousting of the Republican Party from the White House.

The fifth is the Popular Revolutionary Alternative (APR), led by the Communist Party and a long list of former members of parties that were [judicially] intervened, such as Patria Para Todos (PPT) and the Tupamaros parties, but also REDES Party, Izquierda Unida, Nuevos Caminos Revolucionarios (NCR) and a plethora of local and regional organizations that accompanied the Maduro government until recently.

The APR is a dissidence group on the left. It seeks to connect with the labor movements. However, since its formation, the APR has not been able to show the capacity to mobilize or articulate its discourse with the Latin American left, which is why it has not built real force nor is a factor in favor of the labor movements in the negotiations.

The sixth group is made up of academics and intellectuals that are structured around the Platform in Defense of the Constitution (PDC) and Critical Thinking groups. It is often referred to as «dissident Chavismo,” although this phrase does not represent all the expressions of the group. This group does not have any mobilization capacity that may enable them to be taken into account in a negotiation.

The seventh brings together sectors of the left that articulate from the ecological, indigenous, feminist and educational movements in defense of imprisoned workers, alternative journalists, and other leaders. This sector, although disjointed at present, is the most dynamic and creative. A convergence of their forces could be a determining factor in enabling another political option with a real presence to evolve, but so far there are no signs of this happening.

A separate block comes from the recent PSUV primary elections, where new local and regional leaders emerged, many of them from the communes. Some of these local leaderships were already respected while others had been invalidated. The commune movement equates to an awakening of the constituent spirit.

The eighth group is the very weak Trotskyist radical left. After having produced a significant regroupment early on in the century, they fractured as a result of their evaluation of the Chávez government. At present, in the case of Marea Socialista and the Partido Socialismo y Libertad (PSL), they have been joining in specific struggles, but they have had problems when attempting to insert themselves in mass movements. They have failed to position themselves as a reference point, and in the case of LUCHAS (a rupture from Marea Socialista), its work has focused on propaganda with little insertion into social struggles.

The ninth grouping is very marginal: a fundamentalist and ultraconservative right led by Chávez’s former minister for planning Felipe Pérez Martí. This group seems to come from the germ of a Trump or Le Pen-style right, with the addition of religious messianism.

Geopolitics as a determining factor

A hidden agenda will be on the table at the Mexico negotiations. This agenda will attempt to convince the US, European Union and allied countries that Venezuela does not represent a communist threat, something that Maduro has been working on in recent years.

The separation of the Communist Party and other allies with a leftist past from the government coalition and the front line of the administration has been a clear and unequivocal signal in that regard.

Now, the government delegation in Mexico will show that not only can a broad and democratic route be built towards the November 21 mega-elections, but that Maduro is a determining factor in the arbitration and agreements between the different bourgeois fractions.

The disarticulation of the anti-government groups confirms the fact that Maduro is today’s strong man of Venezuelan politics. His government and his way of relating and negotiating with the right-wing opposition by subordinating their initiative to his agenda constitutes a safeguard for the articulation between transnational and national capital.

The real problem behind the current negotiation

The Mexico negotiation may well be the beginning of a new period of cohabitation between the Maduro government and the G-4 opposition, which may cause some minor friction with sectors of the so-called Democratic Alliance opposition. This tension and the way in which it is resolved could facilitate or prevent the construction of a new long-term government agreement (which, of course, does not contemplate presidential changes).

It seems that — contrary to what some proclaim — this arrangement will be expressed modestly in the November election results. In the current circumstances, the G-4 opposition could obtain important mayoralties and councils, but few governorships.

The progressive, gradual and sustained suspension of US sanctions will be a determining factor in the political stabilization and strengthening of Maduro’s Caesarism for the coexistence and articulation of the different bourgeois fractions.

However, peace for the main bourgeois group may mean the boiling over of growing social instability: the people have suffered an unprecedented and dramatic loss of quality of life and purchasing power.

And the world of labor?

The prospects of peace on the horizon can be seen in dozens of prosecuted and arrested workers’ leaders. With monthly salaries under double [US dollar] digits, accumulated inflation that exceeds one million percent and a sustained devaluation of the currency, it is foreseeable that the struggles of the working class, public employees and wage earners, in general, will begin to blow up.

This may lead the government further down the authoritarian path or towards a sustained negotiation with the unions in pursuit of a substantive recovery of the quality of life [of workers]. The problem for the government is that the new litter of workers’ leaders that has emerged seems to be far from both the oppositions and the government, both of whom have bureaucratic machines that do not have the capacity to contain social discontent.

Is there a transition?

There can be no transition away from the Maduro government in the short term. On the contrary, his ability to control the political situation is in a process of consolidation. The different opponents to his government do not seem to be strong enough to create favorable conditions to force any transition. What may happen is the beginning of political cohabitation, with the ensuing distribution of power quotas between the government and the right-wing oppositions.

The left-wing alternatives, on the other hand, are going through a crisis of their own. Neither the Platform in Defense of the Constitution nor the radical left have the social articulation needed to reverse the current situation in the short term. The Popular Revolutionary Alternative generated expectations well above what it has been able to deliver, trapped as it was in the logic of the revolutionary party and the mass fronts.

No option to the left of Maduro has managed to become a relevant factor in terms of mobilization: they have not even managed to clarify the real situation in Venezuela to the continental left. The government’s authoritarian drift can be seen as a determining factor, but even during dictatorship the left historically has been able to mobilize the masses.

In this context, democratic social struggles play a fundamental role in the democratic recomposition of the political, economic and social landscape. The radical left, rather than worrying about consolidating partisan micro-apparatuses, should open itself to new and chaotic forms of organization that might allow it to relate to the fabric of resistance that is woven into society.

What to do?

It is time to reorganize the left from the localities. It is urgent to get out of the bizarre discussions about political theorems and rebuild ourselves from the struggles, putting aside the vanguard party epistemology and recovering the humility of accompaniment and learning from concrete social struggle. The left has always reinvented hope from the ashes. It’s time to do so again.

Recuperating hope and mobilizing capacity is much more likely to be achieved in localized community, social and alternative activities than in right or left political parties currently, and this is where national life must be rebuilt.

Migration may be the factor that tipped the balance in the coming years. Millions of Venezuelans left the country to survive, and in that process they have experienced the barbarism of neoliberalism as well as the solidarity from normal people in other lands. To the extent that sanctions are lifted and political violence is averted, many will return and, potentially, become a determining factor for another possible Venezuela, a Venezuela of social justice, equity, solidarity and democracy.

Can we recover the ability to do political work on the streets? That, and no other, is what makes dreams happen by vibrating and opening the way to radical change.

Luis Bonilla-Montilla is a university professor and researcher at CLASCO’s International Research Center-Other Voices in Education (CII-OVE). He recently won the International Social Justice Award (2020) award from the Paulo Freire Democratic Project of Chapman University, USA.

Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.