Seeking New Direction, Maduro Government Confronts Dissent

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

On Wednesday the Maduro government responded forcefully to the continuing fallout begun by the letter of former Planning Minister Jorge Giordani. Several former ministers have expressed criticism as have other sectors from the left of the government coalition. On Wednesday Maduro referred to the dissenters as “petty bourgeoisie that want to confuse the people.” Other government figures echoed his statements.

On Tuesday, during the anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo on 24 June, Maduro called for “union and maximum discipline of all the revolutionary forces of the Fatherland,” and added that “we cannot allow dissolving forces to prevail. These forces prevented the strategic union of the people in the 19th and 20th Centuries.”

In her speech at the same event, Defense Minister Carmen Meléndez, stressed the need for “civic-military unity” in the face of “internal threats” to independence. The President of PDVSA Rafael Ramirez for his part said that “in this day of the Fatherland, the Bolivarian people have to show unity and maximum loyalty to President Nicolás Maduro and to the Comandante Hugo Chávez.”

But that same day PSUV leader and ex-minister of education complicated Maduro’s position further. Like Giordani, Navarro is considered to be part of the left wing of the Chavista leadership. In a public letter, Navarro asked “is it Giordani who is a traitor because, for example, he denounced the assignation of dollars to fictitious companies and suggested ways to prevent this from occurring?”

Navrarro asked Maduro to “act like a statesman” with respect to criticism. He also suggested that the fact that the “financial right” has shown relief at Giordani’s exit from the government is a troubling sign.

Later during the day Navarro declared that he had received a phone call from PSUV leader Ramón Rodríguez Chacín informing him of his demotion from the National Directive of the PSUV and that his case will be heard by the Disciplinary Tribunal of the party.

Pro-government economist and ex-minister of Basic Industries and Mining, Víctor Álvarez (@victoralvarezr) energetically criticized the treatment of Navarro. He tweeted: “Pure and hard Stalinism: Navarro is sent to disciplinary panel and suspended from National Directorate for raising a critical voice.” Alvarez also praised those who have engaged in constructive criticism rather than maintaining silence.

So did Ana Elisa Osorio (@anaelisaosorio), PSUV leader and also ex-minister, who asked the government to “dig out the anti-corruption laws to really punish corruption.” Those who engaged in acts of corruption “are the great traitors of the revolution.”

Other shows of solidarity within Chavista ranks included the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar. In its open letter the collective criticizes Giordani for the timing of his critiques, but claims those critiques are necessary. Most important, they ask the government to stop the “opportunist and counter-revolutionary blackmail [exercised] from the highest spheres of power to discredit and silence all critiques of errors and vices that undermine public administration.”

Web page Aporrea, the main public discussion forum for the Chavista left, is now overflowing with articles in solidarity with Giordani and Navarro, with titles such as “The Giordani Effect: How Can I Explain this to the opposition?”, “Welcome Giordani! Welcome Vanessa [Davies]! How Nice that Mistakes are Airing! Not Everything is Beautiful,” or “Hector Navarro is a Traitor too?

Rafael Uzcátegui, leader of Patria Para Todos, a small pro-government party, suggested the government’s reaction to the internal critiques in the PSUV show the need, not for more party unity but rather “counterbalances to the government,” i.e. party diversity. Uzcátegui asked the PSUV to review Soviet history so as to not “to lose its direction.”

But on Wednesday Maduro and PSUV leadership began to respond strongly to these internal critiques. On a visit to a factory in 25 June, Maduro suggested the critics showed a lack of judgment “attacking just at the moment when the enemy is trying to cut our heads off and destroy us.” They “accuse me of being a ‘new Stalin.’ Stalin?! I am a son of Chávez and tirelessly fighting and working every day.”

Later in the day at a meeting with members of the Unidades de Batalla Bolívar Chávez, in preparation for the upcoming Third Congress of the PSUV next month, Maduro spoke directly of the ex-ministers: “I ask for the maximum loyalty and discipline of all the leaders of the Revolution! Maximum loyalty and discipline! This is not a time to play with the union of the revolutionary movement!”

Perhaps even more important were the strong statements of other government figures. President of the National Assembly and First Vice President of the PSUV Diosdado Cabello criticized revolutionaries that “instead of using their energy to criticize the right, criticize President Nicolas Maduro. That’s not loyalty! That’s not companionship. That’s not humanism. Is criticism more important than loyalty?”

On his radio program PSUV governor of Carabobo state Francisco Ameliach said “If ministers under Chavez  now betray President Nicolas Maduro it’s because they had a hypocritical relationship with the Commander and never had the will or courage to say to him while alive, the criticisms they now make of Maduro, which are false…We can’t let a few individuals generate fissures in our party.”

PSUV governor of Aragua State Tareck El Aissami said “it’s very easy to write nonsense,” in reference to Giordani and Navarro, both university professors. “We will see how the wisdom of the people rises to the top…Neither the far right, nor the sleep-deprived left will twist the path of this revolution.”

The possibility of such conflict within the ranks of Chavismo is precisely the reason Maduro avoided clear and significant economic reform over the past year. The left wing of the Chavez coalition thinks there is no fundamental problem with the economic model and that, if anything, it should be radicalized. In this view, problems with corruption, inflation and scarcities are not inherent to the model but result from poor implementation.

But in the face of continuing economic difficulties and declining poll numbers the Maduro government seems to have decided the time is right for a dose of economic realism. And with the PSUV congress looming in July the new direction will be put to the test.

Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente Leon suggested that we might be seeing a turning point in the Maduro government. “The first stage of Maduro was characterized by an attempt at internal negotiation. The second will tend to be more frontal.” He suggested we will see more in the upcoming party congress. “The PSUV will try to send a forceful message in its Congress: he who slips (criticizes, opines or challenges) will loseThe great internal debate will be between fear (of being ousted) and the natural rebelliousness of the left.