In a significant escalation in the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela the hard-right opposition held an illegal plebiscite on July 16. On the ballot was among other things a resolution to stage a military coup against President Nicolas Maduro.

This election was less than representative and had many irregularities. Many voters were observed voting multiple times in multiple locations and there was no electronic or even analog system in place to prevent this. The plebiscite was not conducted through the country’s National Electoral Council. Duplicate social media posts from right wing accounts claiming to originate from far different locations showed the exact same image of voters participating. The alleged turnout of 8 million for the phony plebiscite has been proven mathematically impossible given the number of polling locations and the duration they were open — and eyewitnesses on the ground reported paltry turnouts to polling places.

The opposition claimed that all ballots would be burned after tallying for fear of alleged government repression. In reality, this was a measure that allowed the opposition to claim whatever results they wanted, with no third party verification possible.

The background of this plebiscite is ongoing nightly violence in the form of the guarimbas, a Chavista name for right-wing protests, which have endured for months and have seen the lynching of government-supporting Chavistas, Afro-Venezuelan citizens being doused in gasoline and burned alive by opposition supporters, the use of home-made rockets and improvised
explosive devices against the government police and military forces loyal to the Bolivarian Revolution and attacks on state-run food distribution centers and medical facilities.

This opposition movement has now called for a general strike as part of their ongoing “Zero Hour” plan to create chaos for ordinary Venezuelans and delegitimize the democratically-elected United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) government.

So far the military and Bolivarian Revolution-aligned police forces have been remarkably restrained, patient and disciplined in their responses to the chaotic street violence. Government officials, who could have shut down the unconstitutional opposition plebiscite by force, instead permitted it to take place largely unmolested. But the opposition is dedicated to escalating matters as far as possible to try and achieve their goal of harming the revolutionary government.

If the opposition’s general strike goes forward, becomes violent and faces repression from government forces, whose side should socialist supporters of democracy support?

Who’s who and what’s what?

In the United States, large-scale protest movements are associated with progressive causes and efforts. This creates an opening for the forces of U.S. imperialism who are able to manipulate this general impression (that protests are progressive) by projecting a distorted image of protests to create popular support in the United States for regime change in other countries. However in a world of billions, the ability to mobilize large numbers alone is rarely the end of the story. A deeper understanding of the forces at play is always crucial and the current situation in Venezuela is no different.

In Venezuela, the opposition is principally backed by the business sector, including most of the largest businesses and private media conglomerates, and the ranks of the protest movement are principally made up of those from the more affluent sections of society.

Central to the opposition’s stated plans is the goal to privatize and sell off the 1.7 million new public housing units built over the last dozen or so years, and significantly roll-back the entire range of social programs that have reduced poverty and increased living standards for the majority of the country.

The opposition’s plans should be seen in context with the legislative coup government in Brazil and the anti-peace deal campaign in Colombia as part of a broader right wing push to roll-back the social gains made by the working class, Indigenous and Afro descended populations in Latin America under various left-leaning governments over the past two and a half decades.

On the other side are the Chavista forces, including some forces of the Venezuelan state, who are defending the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution for ordinary poor and working citizens. These among other things include significant increases in food security, the expansion of healthcare to the entirety of the population at little to no cost, the elimination of illiteracy, and the expansion of social rights for Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan populations. These gains also include the institutions created by the grassroots, known as communes, that are pioneering socialist-oriented ways of organizing the people’s way of life.

Contrary to the opposition’s claims, the Chavista movement is conducting a truly democratic constituent assembly process to re-write the Constitution to decisively address the structural issues behind the current economic and political crisis. This is a process that almost certainly will involve millions of people; tens of thousands have clearly been participating in the selection of candidates. Large marches of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have taken place several times over the past few months to support and push forward this process, and oppose the right-wing protests.

On the same day as the opposition “plebiscite” the government held a “dry-run” for the constituent assembly which saw a very strong turnout with long lines in the mostly working class strongholds of the Chavista movement. This process is not simply a rubber stamp of the Maduro government as the opposition alleges. In fact it has seen a significant amount of discussion in the grassroots in general and more specifically among socialist and communist activists who are the backbone of the overall Venezuelan movement towards socialism. The assembly process is representative of the broad range of support the government has pulled together including some renegade sectors of the capitalist class.

This has created a lively discussion about the future of the country, most notably how far to move beyond capitalism and the relevant state structures and economic organization that would be required. On a related note is the debate as to how hard of a line to take against the business sector and their capital strike that has so crippled the country. Some argue for more direct and aggressive moves to a socialist society, taking lessons from previous and current socialist experiments; others would like to see a more broad-based conciliation between various social/political forces across classes to try to end the current crisis. These debates over the direction are real and substantive not simply an issue of narrowly endorsing Nicolas Maduro as President.

Which side are you on?

Venezuela is at a crossroads. Since about 2004 Venezuela has been trying to create a balanced developmental social program, socialist governing experiments and worker self-management of enterprises–with a capitalist market economy. This uneasy coexistence was bound to break down with a downturn in the oil economy, considering the role of the oil economy as principal driver of economic activity and government spending.

What is happening in Venezuela now is not “protesters against the state.” Society there is now breaking into two camps. One camp wants to return to the pre-Chavez status quo by dismantling social programs that have improved the standard of living. That coalition is made up of those who benefited the most from the previous, highly unequal society. The other camp seeks to maintain the social gains of the past couple of decades and to move to further consolidate them by bringing government structures into line with a people-centered, not a profit-centered, society.

In other words, the society is divided along “class lines.” The majority of those in the owning class and those who benefit the most from their rule are in the former camp, while the majority of the working class and other oppressed populations are in the latter. The actions of both sides have to be judged on that basis.

If the opposition succeeds it means the return of extreme wealth inequality, ultra-high poverty rates, mass homelessness and housing insecurity, the reduction of access to comprehensive healthcare and education, and the destruction of community and workplace-level experiments in socialism.

Progressive people in the United States then have a dog in this fight. If one truly supports comprehensive universal healthcare, education, housing and food as human rights, then supporting the Venezuelan revolution, and its next step, a constituent assembly, is the obvious choice.