The Venezuelan state is intervening in retail businesses around the country, principally those that trade in domestic appliances. This apparently modest decision, taken a week ago, has set in motion an interesting process of push and pull. Long lines outside the intervened stores and some disorder inside meet with predictable outcry about “mobs” and “communism” from the counterrevolutionary press.
The effects of this whole process — some anticipated, others not — make for a complicated situation. In fact, it is impossible to predict how it will play out. Yet one thing is clear: President Nicolás Maduro, after months of passivity, vacillation, and concessions has finally gone on the offensive.
The core decision is to limit the markup on certain products imported with subsidized dollars. Importers in Venezuela bring in goods with cheap dollars that they obtain through the state — dollars that come from the petroleum rent. They then mark up the goods 200% to 1,000%. The government’s idea is to limit the markup to 30%. For this reason, state institutions such as INDEPABIS are now revising these importers’ books, while the army maintains order.
To some this might seem ridiculous. Whereas the Russians stormed the Winter Palace, the Venezuelans took over refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions! Yet it should be remembered that the U.S. independence process began with similar skirmishes over consumer goods. Moreover, the nature of the Venezuelan economy makes commerce rather than industrial production the key area for the distribution of wealth.
Then there is the historical moment in Venezuela. Class struggle over the past twelve years of the Bolivarian process often has taken on a leapfrog character. Every time the bourgeoisie raised prices, Hugo Chávez would respond by raising salaries. Now the government does not have funds to respond with this bonapartist tactic which leaves all social classes with something. It has to transfer wealth in another way.
The new measures are likely to define Chavism more along class lines, provoking defections of middle-class sympathizers while making more profound the allegiance of the lower classes. Already some wavering Chavists have echoed the bourgeoisie’s doubts about the correctness and decency of these popular actions.
Of course their response is in part conditioned by historical memory. Nearly 25 years ago, Venezuelans reacted to a neoliberal austerity package with countrywide rebellion and looting. This became known as the Caracazo. Now it might seem that a “slow-motion Caracazo” is taking place, but it should be remembered that the problem with the Caracazo of 1989 was not the transfer of wealth through looting but its lack of direction and the severe repression that followed. An ordered Caracazo, a Caracazo with political consciousness might be . . . a revolution.
At the very least it is a profound learning process. At present the masses feel they are participating directly in the economy. Everywhere in the streets there are discussions among ordinary people about the “rate of profit,” “the petroleum rent,” and “the parasitic bourgeoisie.” On top of that, morale has never been so high in the period following Chávez’s death. The key will be directing these energies toward a deepening of the process and planning so that mass activities extend beyond the upcoming municipal elections on December 8.
In the most positive scenario, resistance from the commercial sector will lead to a domino effect in which importers of other types of goods, such as food and clothing, will be also brought under supervision. Venezuela’s system of importation delivers billions of subsidized dollars every year to thousands of private importers. Then the government hopes vainly that they will actually import products and sell them at reasonable prices. This is deeply irrational and any step towards centralization, even if it simply limits the number of possibly corrupt importers, is a positive one.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.