Sunday, 20 February 2011

Venezuela: revolution mobilises after disastrous floods

by Sam McGill.
Source: Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (FRFI), no. 219, February/March 2011.

Despite disastrous flooding across the region, the socialist government in Venezuela has continued to push forward the Bolivarian Revolution through land and other expropriations, and by developing popular participation in tackling the housing crisis. Floods and landslides affected over 40% of the country, leaving 138,000 Venezuelans homeless and killing 35 people. In response, Venezuela’s National Assembly approved an enabling law on 15 December 2010 allowing President Hugo Chavez to enact decrees related to flood recovery independently of the National Assembly. These powers are limited to a maximum period of 18 months; Chavez has said that he will return these powers to Congress in May.

Enabling laws have been used many times by previous presidents in Venezuela. They can be modified or rescinded by the National Assembly, or revoked by citizens if 5% of voters request a referendum. Despite this, Venezuela’s opposition and the international media have rushed to condemn Chavez as a ‘dictator’ and the emergency measures for flood relief as a ‘totalitarian ambush’ and ‘brutal attack ...against democratic life’ (the opposition Tal Cual newspaper). Such lies were freely repeated by The Independent, The Economist, and the BBC. Opposition leaders from the Democratic Table of Unity met with the General Secretary of the Washington-based Organisation of American States, Jose Insulza, on 12 January, demanding that it intervene in Venezuela to ‘re-establish normality’. With the increased Republican representation in the US Congress, there have been fresh calls for sanctions against Venezuelan oil.

These threats have not deterred the revolution even though the floods have worsened the housing shortage, now estimated to be between 2-3 million new homes. The government calculates that a minimum of 135,000 to 200,000 new homes are needed per year to address the crisis. With the new executive powers, Chavez has set up a 10bn Bolivar (US$2.3bn) emergency fund, including $500m recovered from frozen US accounts, deposited in 1999 following an IMF demand under a Macroeconomic Stabilisation Fund. Venezuela repaid its debts to the World Bank and cut off all ties with the IMF in 2007.

Although the enabling law has allowed the government to respond rapidly to the floods, urban land activists and tenants associations have also organised communities locally. 165.4m Bolivars (US$ 38.5m) has been granted from the Popular Power Fund for the development of five housing projects across Caracas to be run by ‘Pioneers of New Socialist Communities’, committees of homeless families who have set up camps on unoccupied land.

Future decrees are expected to extend agricultural credits to rebuild food production and to reconstruct flood-affected rural zones, and housing laws that Chavez states will ‘guarantee the right to adequate, safe, comfortable, and hygienic housing’. Two private companies, Sanitarios Maracay, a toilet manufacturer, and Venezuelan Aluminium, have been nationalised to control the production necessary for reconstruction. Several private golf courses may be expropriated for housing. Venezuela has also received international solidarity including 6,900 tons of cement from Cuba, which has further promised to send 500,000 square metres of concrete roof tiles, 200,000 metres of ceramic tiles and other material for flood refugee centres.

New Year, new National Assembly, new challenges
The new National Assembly was sworn in on 5 January 2011. The opposition coalition of the Democratic Table of Unity now has 65 seats compared to 96 taken by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. To consolidate the Bolivarian Revolution, the outgoing National Assembly approved laws which will rein in private finance, prevent the formation of financial groups and prohibit banks from having an interest in brokerage firms and insurance companies. It also approved a group of five ‘popular power’ laws promoting decentralisation of power, collective property and self-government.

Crucially, the outgoing National Assembly passed the Defence of Political Sovereignty and National Self Determination Law making foreign funding of political organisations illegal (as in the US) and allowing the expulsion of any foreign citizens involved. This is key to limiting imperialist interference in Venezuela. In 2010 the FRIDE Institute published US State Department documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act. Agencies including the United States Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as the European Commission, were found to be pumping an annual $40-50m to Venezuela’s opposition parties and media to bring down the Bolivarian Revolution.

They will not succeed!