Venezuela: Chavistas Debate the Pace of Change

The violent anti-government protests that shook Venezuela in February have once again thrust the issue of the pace of change into the broader debate over socialist transformation. Radical Chavistas, reflecting the zeal of the movement’s rank and file, call for a deepening of the “revolutionary process,” while moderate Chavistas favor concessions to avoid an escalation of the violence. The same dilemma confronted the socialist government of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, but under different political circumstances. Unlike in Chile, Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have won nearly all national elections over a period of 15 years by absolute majorities. In addition, Chavistas, since the early years, have maintained firm control of the two most important institutions in the country: the armed forces and the state oil company PDVSA.

Maduro follows in the aftermath of Chavez

The invigoration of the Chavista rank and file, along with mass mobilizations, became a must for the Maduro government’s political survival in the face of the opposition’s disruptive and at times violent tactics in February. Thus on successive days in late February, Maduro spoke at mass rallies of women, oil workers, motorcyclists, telephone workers, and finally peasants and indigenous people. On each occasion social movement representatives called for the “deepening of the revolutionary process,” “radicalization,” and “people’s power.” Maduro, for his part, outlined popular measures and at times threatened the elite with radicalization. This combination of expectations of radicalization and announced programs favoring the popular sectors had enabled Chávez to overcome situations of crisis in the past.

Similarly, immediately after each triumph, the Chávez government took advantage of its political capital by announcing bold initiatives. For instance, following his victory in the recall election of 2004, Chávez defined himself as a socialist and expropriated several abandoned factories. After his capture of 63% of the vote in the 2006 presidential elections he nationalized strategic industries. The impressive showing of the Chavistas in the December 2013 municipal elections appeared to follow the same pattern in that immediately after the contests, Maduro took calculated risks. Opinion, however, has been divided within the movement as to whether his moves contributed to the deepening of the revolutionary process or represented a step backward. The measures he implemented were designed to face the problems of acute shortages of basic commodities, price increases far above those set by the government, a 56% inflation rate (nearly triple that of the previous year), widespread currency speculation, and the refusal of the opposition to recognize the government’s legitimacy.

Declaring war on price speculation - Maduro's popularity recovers

The favorable electoral results in December represented a turnaround for President Maduro. Shortly after Chávez’s death in March 2013, Maduro was elected president by an unexpectedly narrow margin of 1.7%. In interpreting the outcome, the opposition and private media stressed the fact that Maduro failed to measure up to Chávez’s leadership capacity. The International Herald Tribune, for instance, ran a story on disillusioned Chavistas and quoted one who claimed he still supported the government but, in reference to Maduro, added, “We don’t want a president who is a joke.”

Maduro’s popularity recovered in November when he declared war on price speculation and in doing so invigorated the Chavista base. As part of a well-publicized campaign, Maduro and government authorities inspected large commercial outfits and documented what he called “grotesque prices” of household appliances and other products imported with “preferential dollars”—dollars sold by the government to merchants at an artificially low price in Venezuelan bolivars. The National Guard occupied the stores at the same time that prices were slashed; in several cases, the government detained and initiated judicial proceedings against store owners. This no-nonsense approach resonated among voters in December. According to the public opinion firm Hinterlaces, 70% of Venezuelans approved of the “economic offensive” and 62% supported measures to limit profits.

Maduro's three strategies and actions

Following the December elections, Maduro defined three strategies. First, he indicated his willingness to meet with opposition leaders and businesspeople to find ways to reduce tension and solve specific problems. Second, he announced stringent measures against speculators, hoarders, and contrabandists. Finally, the president sought to “rationalize” government controls to narrow the disparity between regulated prices and market value of goods and services. All three approaches generated controversy in and out of the Chavista movement, and would not have been politically feasible had the Chavistas fared poorly in the December elections.

All three strategies were accompanied by specific actions. Just 10 days after the December elections, Maduro met with nearly all recently elected governors and mayors belonging to the opposition with the aim of listening to their grievances and suggestions on seven specific problems at the local level including personal security, housing construction, and health. Late January saw the approval of the Law for the Control of Fair Costs, Prices, and Profits, which establishes jail sentences of up to 14 years for contrabandists, 12 years for those accused of hoarding, and 8 to 10 years for merchants who sell above regulated prices. In addition, the law establishes a federal office to monitor prices and assure that profits do not exceed about 30% of investment.

Finally, in an attempt to put the economy in order, Maduro dramatically devalued the bolivar from 6.3 to 11.3 to the dollar for imports of non-essential goods as well as for tourists who travel abroad. To infuse flexibility into the economy, Maduro left open the possibility that the exchange rate could fluctuate on a regular basis as could regulated prices for basic commodities. Minister of Energy and Oil Rafael Ramírez also floated the idea of increasing gasoline prices, the cheapest in the world, in order to cover production costs.

In some respects, government discourse and actions have differed, albeit in degree, from the positions assumed by Chávez. Most important, ever since the early years of his rule, Chávez refused to negotiate with representatives of the political and economic elite in order to achieve national reconciliation. Indeed, Chávez’s point of honor was that he would not take part in the old wheeling and dealing that had guided Venezuelan party politics since the ouster of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958, and had left the popular sectors on the sidelines.

Radicals fear Maduro was too soft

Radical Chavistas and many in the rank and file of the movement feared that Maduro’s overtures to the opposition signaled a softening of government positions and possible concessions to powerful interests. This viewpoint was most forcefully put forward by former guerrilla Toby Valderrama, who argued that the only alternative to capitulation to economic elites was the expropriation of their companies, particularly those that convert food into a “commodity” by illegally jacking up prices to maximize profit. While affirming his support for Maduro, Valderrama, in an essay titled “Rectify or Die,” questioned the logic of the president’s willingness to meet with businesspeople: “At a time when we should have deepened the process of socialism, we asked for help from the capitalists. True to form, the oligarchy [the capitalists] ate from our hand and then bit it.”

An announcement by several top government officials and then by Maduro himself in 2013 came as a shock to Venezuelans and generated considerable support for Valderrama’s call for expropriations and jailing. The public was told that during the previous year bogus companies had received preferential dollars allegedly to pay for imports of up to 20 billion dollars. Maduro placed part of the blame on government functionaries who were in cahoots with commercial interests. Even though planning minister Jorge Giordani first leveled the charges in March 2013 and the public rip-off was confirmed shortly thereafter by the head of the Central Bank, only in December did Maduro name a presidential commission to investigate the case. Furthermore, while announcing that 1,245 companies no longer qualified for preferential dollars due to the falsification of information, the government failed to reveal their names or take them to court. In early March, Vice-president Jorge Arreaza announced that the government would shortly publish the names of the spurious companies that received preferential dollars.

It is puzzling that the Maduro government formulated the accusations if it lacked the willpower to proceed vigorously against powerful economic interests and state bureaucrats. Some Chavistas attributed the inconsistency to Maduro’s lack of political acumen or ingenuity. An alternative explanation is that Maduro lacks Chávez’s prestige and power and thus decided to avert a head-on confrontation with business groups, some with ties to sectors of his own government and movement. Proponents of this explanation feel that Maduro’s warnings and some of his actions—such as the confiscation of warehouses that stored goods for contraband—demonstrate that he is not willing to close his eyes to blatant abuses.

Combating corruption

Maduro began his presidency with a commitment to combat corruption. Throughout 2013, several hundred government officials and others were jailed on charges of wrongdoing in the public sphere. High-profile cases included the ex-governor of Guárico, the ex-head of the state iron company Ferrominera, and the mayor of the country’s third largest city, Valencia. All three were Chavistas who were not considered dissidents and were jailed along with various businessmen and aides. The social democratic and social Christian governments that ruled Venezuela for four decades prior to Chavez’s coming to power never took concrete actions of this nature.

In early February, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello led a campaign against merchants who made extraordinary profits by illegally exporting essential commodities whose prices were kept artificially low by the government to facilitate popular consumption. Cabello presided over the confiscation of contraband in states bordering on Colombia and insisted that the companies that produced and processed the goods appeared to be “accomplices” of the price-gouging merchants and consequently would be investigated. Holding up a container of cooking oil of the recently expropriated Industrias Diana, Cabello accused state functionaries: “This cannot be pardoned because Diana is a company of the people.” At the same time Lactea Venezolana, a subsidiary of the Italian dairy corporation Parmalat, received hefty fines for hoarding powdered milk in its Caracas installations.

Maduro's counteroffense - "positive"

Long-time leftist political analyst Vladimir Acosta hailed the government’s February counteroffensive as “positive news,” particularly because the business-induced scarcity was designed to “bleed Venezuela to death.” Acosta, however, went on to refer to the government’s announcement that 32 companies had been held responsible for numerous abandoned containers in a Venezuelan port, “but not one word was said about who the businesspeople were, what measures if any were taken against them and where the merchandise was found.”

In short, the government has waged a counteroffensive against the “economic war” carried out by powerful interests. The radical critique, while undoubtedly failing to give the Maduro presidency sufficient credit for facing up to corrupt functionaries and what it calls the “parasitic bourgeoisie,” points to shortcomings in the government’s campaign: The effort has not been ongoing; names of those involved in illegal and corrupt dealings have not always been revealed; local government and community groups have not played a central role in choosing targets; and the government has often failed to follow up on its threats of judicial proceedings.

Similarly, the government’s strategy of an opening toward business and political adversaries has been met with mixed reactions on the left and in the labor movement. Worker leaders of both the radical UNETE faction and, to a lesser extent, the more moderate Bolivarian Socialist Workers Central, manifested apprehension. UNETE national coordinator Servando Carbone told me he feared that negotiations could be a prelude to the abandonment of key labor gains, especially the provision of the Labor Law of 2012 that outlawed outsourcing within three years of its passage. The government to its credit has incorporated large numbers of contractor-firm workers into the payrolls of state industrial companies, but it continues to hire employees in the public administration on a contractual basis. Carbone insisted: “Implicit in all negotiations is the willingness to grant concessions; this is what may be in store for the ban on the vile practice of outsourcing.”

Some radicals reject conciliation

Some of the grassroots radicals also reject conciliation with opposition political leaders, but the government’s discourse in favor of dialogue appeared as a logical and effective response to opposition-promoted violence and aggressiveness. The meeting between Maduro and opposition governors and mayors in December, for instance, was an implicit recognition of the president’s legitimacy by leaders who had refused to accept the results of the April 2013 elections. Similarly, various opposition politicians including the executive secretary of the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) along with the top business group Fedecámaras, which had led the coup against Chávez in 2002, participated in the “National Peace Conference” organized by Maduro in late February. Their call for an end to political violence represented a blow to the opposition alliance, the MUD, which boycotted the meeting.

Indeed, Maduro’s decision to negotiate with anti-Chavista political leaders was premised on the existence of a rift within the MUD. According to this view, what the Chavistas call the “fascist” faction, which organized the demonstrations calling for Maduro’s removal in February, is pitted against a “democratic” one, which focuses on specific issues rather than regime change. Former vice president and long-time leftist José Vicente Rangel has for years advocated this differentiation strategy. In his weekly talk show, “José Vicente Hoy,” in February, Rangel asserted that support for dialogue is producing “a pressure cooker effect on the MUD; the alliance’s days are numbered.”

MUD - "good cops" working with "bad cops"

Nevertheless, the protests that rocked Venezuela in February have another reading. According to National Assembly Vice-President Diosdado Cabello, MUD standard-bearer Henrique Capriles and others are playing the role of “good cop” and are working hand in glove with the “bad cops,” the so-called fascists. Even peaceful protests that were applauded by the entire opposition involved daily disruption of traffic designed to paralyze urban transportation. In addition, Capriles, in his role as governor of the state of Miranda, along with other opposition governors and mayors who were considered “democrats,” refrained from containing the violence in their areas of jurisdiction. Equally important, the opposition as a whole, and not just the radical fringe, refused to recognize Maduro’s legitimacy after he was elected in 2012, as was the case for much of Chávez’s rule.

Chavista leaders vacillated between appeals to the democratic commitment of “responsible” opposition leaders and condemnation of the conspiratorial plans of the entire opposition.
Another relative change since the Chávez years is the tension between the Chavista leaders and radicals, the latter of whom in many ways express the concerns of the movement’s rank and file. Maduro railed against radical Valderrama even though he is a minor figure in the Chavista movement, calling his writing “stupidity” (pajuatadas). Furthermore, while under the Chávez presidency there were always several Chavistas in leading positions with whom the radicals could identify—Fernando Soto Rojas (president of the National Assembly) and Eduardo Samán (head of the consumer protection agency), for example—this has been less the case under Maduro, particularly with Samán’s exit in January. Finally, several critical Chavistas with talk shows on the main state TV channel and radio station encountered problems and now broadcast their programs on the independent Chavista web page and elsewhere.

Top-down nature of PSUV

More troublesome for the radicals is the top-down nature of Maduro’s party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). All seven of the PSUV’s vice-presidents representing different regions are governors or members of Maduro’s cabinet. Furthermore, in 2012 the party discarded the system of primaries that the Chavistas had employed in the past. The PSUV’s congress to be held in late July, unlike the previous one in 2009 when delegates were chosen in internal elections, will consist of 361 delegates who are governors, mayors, and national deputies, and a slightly larger number chosen by “consensus.”

At the heart of the division within the Chavista movement are the ties between the government and business groups dating back to the two-month general strike that almost toppled the government in 2002-2003. With the aim of breaking the strike, the government enlisted the support of businesspeople, some of whom were self-serving anti-Chavistas, others who believed that the strike was professionally unethical, and others who to varying degrees supported Chavismo. Subsequently, the Chavista leadership rejected the thesis that the government should maintain the entire private sector at arm’s length. Instead the Chavistas in power opted for a favorable treatment in the granting of public works projects and the like to those who had collaborated with the government during the general strike. Regardless of their motivation, these businesspeople were considered more reliable than the established business organization Fedecámaras, which had led several attempts to overthrow Chávez.

Business people in PSUV is problematic

While a special relationship with certain businesspeople was useful from a pragmatic viewpoint, it generated corruption. The scandal of the 20 billion preferential dollars, more than any other development, exposed the strategy’s pitfalls. Maduro himself recognized the extent of the problem when he promised to investigate the possible existence of a boliburguesía—a term previously used mainly by the opposition to refer to businesspeople who had entered the ranks of the bourgeoisie as a result of their connections with the Chavista Bolivarian government. The Chavista radicals are convinced that businesspeople—such as Wilmer Ruperti, who made the biggest killing of all during the general strike and went on to purchase a TV channel—would be the first to go over to the enemy camp should the opposition be on the verge of returning to power.

In an interview, the Secretary of Organization of the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), Perfecto Abreu, contrasted his own party with the PSUV, with its multi-party makeup. “The PSUV takes in businesspeople who are organized as such within the Chavista movement and reap benefits.” As an example, Abreu pointed to the business organization Fedeindustria headed by the politically ambitious Chavista Miguel Ángel Pérez Abad.

In short, while the Venezuelan economic system continues to be capitalist, leaders committed to socialism hold power within the state. The case of the 20 billion preferential dollars puts in evidence the close ties between the capitalist structure and the socialist government. Socialist transformation in Venezuela will be a long and difficult process, and an understanding of the complexity of this process is necessary to avoid disillusionment—which the radical critique of the government runs the risk of encouraging—among those who opt for a peaceful road to socialist and democratic change.

Rank and file of PSUV will determine pace of progress

All this points to the overriding importance of truly democratic political parties and social movements, which, unlike the state, are independent of the capitalist base. Precisely for this reason, the final outcome of the process of transformation in Venezuela will be determined not so much by those on top, but rather by the rank and file of the PSUV and allied parties and social movements in a variety of venues including, to a great extent, the streets. This dynamic was made evident during the violence-ridden month of February. The Chavista mobilizations, along with the perception at the grassroots level of a continuous process of change, were more important in facing the subversive threat than government-opposition conversations, which included some political leaders with no intention of abandoning their regime-change tactics.


Steve Ellner has taught economic history at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela since 1977 and more recently in the Misión Sucre university program. He is the editor of Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century, recently released by Rowman and Littlefield.

U.S. incites protests for a "slow-motion" Ukraine-style coup

Venezuela protests are a sign that US wants our oil
Exclusive interview with Pres. Maduro by Seumas Milne and Jonathan Watts in Caracas

Venezuela's president [Nicolás Maduro] has accused the US of using continuing street protests to attempt a "slow-motion" Ukraine-style coup against his government and "get their hands on Venezuelan oil".

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Nicolás Maduro, elected last year after the death of Hugo Chávez, said what he described as a "revolt of the rich" would fail because the country's "Bolivarian revolution" was more deeply rooted than when it had seen off an abortive US-backed coup against Chávez in 2002.

Venezuela, estimated to have the world's largest oil reserves, has faced continuous violent street protests – focused on inflation, shortages and crime – since the beginning of February, after opposition leaders launched a campaign to oust Maduro and his socialist government under the slogan of "the exit".

"They are trying to sell to the world the idea that the protests are some of sort of Arab spring," he said. "But in Venezuela, we have already had our spring: our revolution that opened the door to the 21st century".

The conflict has claimed up to 39 lives and posed a significant challenge to Maduro's government. On Monday, the Venezuelan president agreed to a proposal by the South American regional group Unasur for peace talks with opposition leaders, who have up to now refused to join a government-led dialogue.

The US denies involvement and says Venezuela is using the excuse of a coup threat to crack down on the opposition. Human Rights Watch and Venezuela's Catholic hierarchy have also condemned the government's handling of the protests, while Amnesty International has alleged human rights abuses by both sides.

Venezuela faces unconventional war perfected by U.S.

Maduro claimed Venezuela was facing a type of "unconventional war that the US has perfected over the last decades", citing a string of US-backed coups or attempted coups from 1960s Brazil to Honduras in 2009.

Speaking in the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, the former bus driver and trade union leader said Venezuela's opposition had "the aim of paralysing the main cities of the country, copying badly what happened in Kiev, where the main roads in the cities were blocked off, until they made governability impossible, which led to the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine." The Venezuelan opposition had, he said, a "similar plan".

"They try to increase economic problems through an economic war to cut the supplies of basic goods and boost an artificial inflation", Maduro said. "To create social discontent and violence, to portray a country in flames, which could lead them to justify international isolation and even foreign intervention."

The rich protest and the poor celebrate their social wellbeing

Pointing to the large increases in social provision and reduction in inequality over the past decade and a half, Maduro said: "When I was a union leader there wasn't a single programme to protect the education, health, housing and salaries of the workers. It was the reign of savage capitalism. Today in Venezuela, the working class is in power: it's the country where the rich protest and the poor celebrate their social wellbeing," he said.

Venezuela's protests have been fuelled by high inflation, which reached a peak of 57% but has now fallen to a monthly rate of 2.4%, and shortages of subsidised basic goods, a significant proportion of which are smuggled into Colombia and sold for far higher prices. Opposition leaders accuse the government of mismanagement.

Recent easing of currency controls appear to have had a positive impact, and the economy continues to grow and poverty rates fall. But Venezuela's murder rate – a target of the protests – is among the highest in the world.

About 2,200 have been arrested (190 or so are still detained) during two months of unrest, which followed calls by opposition leaders to "light up the streets with struggle" and December's municipal elections in which Maduro's supporters' lead over the opposition increased to 10%.
Responsibility for the deaths is strongly contested. Eight of the dead have been confirmed to be police or security forces; four opposition activists (and one government supporter) killed by police, for which several police officers have been arrested; seven were allegedly killed by pro-government colectivo activists and 13 by opposition supporters at street barricades.

Fault right-wing extremists for 95% of deaths

Asked how much responsibility the government should take for the killings, Maduro responded that 95% of the deaths were the fault of "rightwing extremist groups" at the barricades, giving the example of three motorcyclists killed by wire strung across the road by protesters. He said he has set up a commission to investigate each case. The global media was being used to promote a "virtual reality" of a "student movement being repressed by an authoritarian government", he argued. "What government in the world hasn't committed political or economic mistakes? But does that justify the burning down of universities or the overthrow of an elected government?"The protests, often led by students and overwhelmingly in well-off areas, have included arson attacks on government buildings, universities and bus stations. From a peak of several hundred thousand people in February, most recent demonstrations have dwindled in size and are restricted to opposition strongholds, such as Tachira state on the Colombian border.

A hardline opposition leader, Leopoldo López, who participated in the 2002 coup, and two opposition mayors have been arrested and charged with inciting violence. Another backer of the protests, María Corina Machado, was stripped of her post in parliament.

This was not "criminalising dissent", Maduro insisted. "The opposition has full guarantees and rights. We have an open democracy. But if a politician commits a crime, calls for the overthrow of the legitimate government and uses his position to block streets, burn universities and public transport, the courts act." Critics, however, insist the courts are politicised.

UNASUR and Mercosure backs Maduro

Last month, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, claimed Venezuela was waging a "terror campaign" against its own citizens. But the Organisation of American States and the South American UNASUR and Mercosur blocs of states backed the Venezuelan government and called for political dialogue.

Asked for evidence of US intervention in the protests, the Venezuelan president replied: "Is 100 years of intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean not enough: against Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, Grenada, Brazil? Is the coup attempt against President Chávez by the Bush administration not enough? Why does the US have 2,000 military bases in the world? To dominate it. I have told President Obama: we are not your backyard anymore".

Maduro pointed to evidence of past and present US intervention in Venezuela in Wikileaks cables, the whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations and US state department documents. They include cables from the US ambassador outlining US plans to "divide", "isolate" and "penetrate" the Chávez government, and extensive US government funding of Venezuelan opposition groups over the past decade (some via agencies such as USAid and the Office for Transitional Initiatives),including $5m (£3m) of overt support in the current fiscal year.

USAID covertly funds political unrest

Maduro's allegations follow last week's revelation that USAID covertly funded a social media website to foment political unrest and encourage "flash mobs" in Venezuela's ally Cuba under the cover of "development assistance". White House officials acknowledged that such programmes were not "unique to Cuba".

Maduro has called a national peace conference – though opposition parties have so far refused to participate, arguing it will be skewed to endorse the government.

The president also says he will agree to Vatican conciliation if the opposition condemns violence. But he rejects criticism that he and the Chavista movement have been too polarising."I don't think polarisation in a democracy is something wrong. That seems to be trendy now, to try to turn polarisation into some sort of disease. I wish all democratic societies would polarise. A democracy can only truly function if its society is politicised."

Venezuela has a positive polarisation

"Politics is not only for the elite, for centre-right and centre-left parties, while the elites distribute power and wealth among themselves", Maduro said. "Venezuela has a positive polarisation because it is a politicised country where the large majority take sides over public policies. There is also negative polarisation that doesn't accept the other and wants to eliminate the other – we must get over that with national dialogue."Venezuela has been central to the radical political transformation of Latin America over the past decade, and Maduro insists that regional process will continue.

When Chávez said "the 21st century is ours" in 1992, he says "it was a romantic idea. Today it is a reality and no one is going to take it away from us".

Challenged over whether Venezuela's 2009 referendum to abolish limits on the number of times presidents can stand for election meant he would like to continue indefinitely, Maduro countered that Venezuela had a right to recall elected officials, unlike in Europe. "In the UK, the prime minister can run as many times as he wants to, but not the royals. Who elected the queen?

"The people will decide until when I can be here. Be certain that if it is not me it will be another revolutionary. What will be indefinite is the popular power of the people".

Editorial in New York Times by Pres. Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela: A Call for Peace

CARACAS, Venezuela — The recent protests in Venezuela have made international headlines. Much of the foreign media coverage has distorted the reality of my country and the facts surrounding the events.

Venezuelans are proud of our democracy. We have built a participatory democratic movement from the grass roots that has ensured that both power and resources are equitably distributed among our people.

According to the United Nations, Venezuela has consistently reduced inequality: It now has the lowest income inequality in the region. We have reduced poverty enormously — to 25.4 percent in 2012, on the World Bank’s data, from 49 percent in 1998; in the same period, according to government statistics, extreme poverty diminished to 6 percent from 21 percent.

Improvement of life through social programs

We have created flagship universal health care and education programs, free to our citizens nationwide. We have achieved these feats in large part by using revenue from Venezuelan oil.

While our social policies have improved citizens’ lives over all, the government has also confronted serious economic challenges in the past 16 months, including inflation and shortages of basic goods. We continue to find solutions through measures like our new market-based foreign exchange system, which is designed to reduce the black market exchange rate. And we are monitoring businesses to ensure they are not gouging consumers or hoarding products. Venezuela has also struggled with a high crime rate. We are addressing this by building a new national police force, strengthening community-police cooperation and revamping our prison system.

Revolution receives continued popular support

Since 1998, the movement founded by Hugo Chávez has won more than a dozen presidential, parliamentary and local elections through an electoral process that former American President Jimmy Carter has called “the best in the world.” Recently, the United Socialist Party received an overwhelming mandate in mayoral elections in December 2013, winning 255 out of 337 municipalities.
Popular participation in politics in Venezuela has increased dramatically over the past decade. As a former union organizer, I believe profoundly in the right to association and in the civic duty to ensure that justice prevails by voicing legitimate concerns through peaceful assembly and protest.
The claims that Venezuela has a deficient democracy and that current protests represent mainstream sentiment are belied by the facts. The antigovernment protests are being carried out by people in thewealthier segments of society who seek to reverse the gains of the democratic process that have benefited the vast majority of the people.

Antigovernment protesters have physically attacked and damaged health care clinics, burned down a university in Táchira State and thrown Molotov cocktails and rocks at buses. They have also targeted other public institutions by throwing rocks and torches at the offices of the Supreme Court, the public telephone company CANTV and the attorney general’s office. These violent actions have caused many millions of dollars’ worth of damage. This is why the protests have received no support in poor and working-class neighborhoods.

The protesters have a single goal: the unconstitutional ouster of the democratically elected government. Antigovernment leaders made this clear when they started the campaign in January, vowing to create chaos in the streets. Those with legitimate criticisms of economic conditions or the crime rate are being exploited by protest leaders with a violent, antidemocratic agenda.
In two months, a reported 36 people have been killed. The protesters are, we believe, directly responsible for about half of the fatalities. Six members of the National Guard have been shot and killed; other citizens have been murdered while attempting to remove obstacles placed by protesters to block transit.

A very small number of security forces personnel have also been accused of engaging in violence, as a result of which several people have died. These are highly regrettable events, and the Venezuelan government has responded by arresting those suspected. We have created a Human Rights Council to investigate all incidents related to these protests. Each victim deserves justice, and every perpetrator — whether a supporter or an opponent of the government — will be held accountable for his or her actions.

In the United States, the protesters have been described as “peaceful,” while the Venezuelan government is said to be violently repressing them. According to this narrative, the American government is siding with the people of Venezuela; in reality, it is on the side of the one percent who wish to drag our country back to when the 99 percent were shut out of political life and only the few — including American companies — benefited from Venezuela’s oil.

2002 Coup are leading today's violence

Let’s not forget that some of those who supported ousting Venezuela’s democratically elected government in 2002 are leading the protests today. Those involved in the 2002 coup immediately disbanded the Supreme Court and the legislature, and scrapped the Constitution. Those who incite violence and attempt similar unconstitutional actions today must face the justice system.
The American government supported the 2002 coup and recognized the coup government despite its anti-democratic behavior.

Today, the Obama administration spends at least $5 million annually to support opposition movements in Venezuela. A bill calling for an additional $15 million for these anti-government organizations is now in Congress. Congress is also deciding whether to impose sanctions on Venezuela. I hope that the American people, knowing the truth, will decide that Venezuela and its people do not deserve such punishment, and will call upon their representatives not to enact sanctions.

(UNASUR)- Mercosur and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN)

Now is a time for dialogue and diplomacy. Within Venezuela, we have extended a hand to the opposition. And we have accepted the Union of South American Nations’ recommendations to engage in mediated talks with the opposition. My government has also reached out to President Obama, expressing our desire to again exchange ambassadors. We hope his administration will respond in kind.

Venezuela needs peace and dialogue to move forward. We welcome anyone who sincerely wants to help us reach these goals.

Nicolás Maduro is the president of Venezuela.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 2, 2014, on page A27 of the New York Times edition with the headline: Venezuela: A Call for Peace.