The Social Movement Awakens from Morpheus’ Dream and Tries to Escape "Behavioural Conditioning"
A Tense calm
The week of January 16 to 22 has been one of assemblies, meetings, unity agreements between sectors of workers, preparation of communiqués and of clarifying the route of the march called by teachers for January 23. Like the previous week, the union and federation leaerships have been at the far end of the process, cornered by their deafness to the just claims of teachers and staff who contribute to the whole educational process.
It has been a week of tense calm, some punctuated by mobilisations which have broken out in one or another city, like engines revving up for what is expected to be a large national march on Monday, January 23. A distinctive feature of the teacher mobilisations of these two weeks is that, although the squadrons of the National Guard and the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) have been deployed, not only have they not repressed the mobilisations up to now, in some cases they have retreated, which has been interpreted as respect for the struggle embodied by the teachers whose potential benefits extend to the working class as a whole.
In a country with high prices for basic foods, services and rentals compared to those in the rest of Latin America, the demands continue to be: an increase in the minimum monthly salary, currently below 7 dollars, with a teachers salary to be above 300 dollars, since currently it is no more than an average of 30 dollars per month. Likewise, the demand to increase the pensions of retirees and the activation of hospitalisation, surgery and maternity insurance, because the public health service has been practically dismantled, and functions without gauze, syringes or the minimum necessary material.
The government continues to argue that this is because of the Medidas Coercitivas Unilaterales [Unilateral Coercive Measures (UCM)] imposed by the United States and European imperialist nations, but they have not been able to explain how countries with lower gross domestic product per capita like Haiti or in conditions of blockade for decades like Cuba guarantee much higher teacher salaries than Venezuela. Obviously, it is an elitist conception of the distribution of national wealth in favour of the bourgeoisies (of the fourth and fifth Republics), justified by the monetarist theories that Chávez criticized so much.
Recently a high-ranking official was videoed at a private concert by the artist Eros Ramazotti, who charges $5000 per person. As an example of the two Venezuelas that survive in the face of the destruction of working-class wages the video went viral. The discrediting of the bureaucratic union leaders extends to the political parties of the government and the opposition, who identify themselves as allies against the working class. The exception are parties like the Communist Party of Venezuela that, being respected for their current position, have a limited ability to influence this mass movement.
The central feature is the self-organisation of the teachers' rank and file to which some class-based unions have joined, but most of the union federations have been confined to rear of the movement. Another feature has been the ability to keep political parties at bay, claiming the popular character of protests, a phenomenon that expresses a new national political reality.
• The BCV rate exceeds 20 bolivars for one dollar
On January 3, 2023, the price of the dollar indicated by the Banco Central de Venezuela [Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV)] was 17.86. bolivars. In just a few days, on January 20, it was at 20.29 bolivars. Only a few months earlier, on August 23, 2022, the price of the US currency was 6.22 bolivars per dollar, which shows the depreciation of the currency in the exchange market, something that has a terrible effect on the purchasing power of wages and drives inflation. All these prices are determined by the BCV.
While this is happening, the national government has allocated 4% of the 2023 national budget to the "promotion of the faith", a figure that was practically unknown in a country that prided itself on its secularism, while the budget allocation for science is only 2%. Perhaps the government intends to solve with prayers something that belongs to the earthly world: wages. This is not only a slap in the face of the aspirations for salary justice of the teachers and the working class, but also an alignment with the policy of the US State Department of promoting religious fundamentalism as a support for governability and for the promotion of the cultural themes of the ultra right that cross the continent.
Yet the government incomprehensibly launches the “Corazón Cristiano” ["Christian Heart"] Movement and the "My well-equipped church" Mission for the restoration of religious spaces nationwide whilst claiming that there are no resources for a salary increase for teachers.
The criminal unilateral coercive measures
It is undeniable that the MCUs are a bomb that destroys the people, but their real political efficacy does not consist in overthrowing the Maduro government, but in accelerating the agreement between the old bourgeoisie (Fourth Republic) and the new bourgeoisie (Fifth Republic). While this agreement takes shape and is expressed in a new form of governance, it is the Venezuelan people and not the new bourgeoisie who suffer the devastating effects of these measures.
The MCUs have meant a drop in the country's income, from 46.903 billion US dollars in 2012 (with Chávez) to 1.768 billion in 2021. However, it can be shown that even in the current circumstances, a decent salary can be guaranteed for teachers in the country.
Latin American teachers are forcefully denouncing these MCUs as a weapon of mass destruction of the Venezuelan people. The lifting of imperialist sanctions will clarify the situation and clearly show the neoliberal regression of recent years.
One of the things that most offends the working class is the ostentation of the political class and the bourgeoisies at a time such as the present, in which hunger and misery surround the people.
The grim situation
The teacher's salary is between USD20 and USD50 dollars a month, on average about 30 dollars. These are some of the costs of basic products in order to show the impact on the purchasing power of wages:
Product Price in dollars
1 kilo of meat 7 – 8 dollars (depending on the region of the country)
1 kilo of chicken 5-8 dollars (depending on the region of the country)
1 kilo of cheese 5-8 dollars “
1 kilo of ham 5-9 dollars “
1 carton of eggs 5-6 dollars “
1 kilo of onions 2.25-3 dollars “
1 kilo of potatoes 1.20 – 2 dollars “
1 kilo of plantains 1.62- 2 dollars “
1 tomato salsa 3 dollars
TOTAL 35.07-49 dollars (depending on the region)
That is to say, the monthly salary of teachers is not even enough to fulfill these small requirements once a month. This does not take into account the costs of medicines, shoes, clothes for children and daily bus tickets to get to work (minimum 2 dollars a day for transportation, which for 22 days of classes represents 44 dollars a month).
Let's see now, the average family payment for services
Service Average Monthly price in dollars
This forces families to take on two or three additional jobs just to barely survive. The real situation is that teachers in Venezuela live in extreme poverty. The most recent report from FAO1 indicates that more than 20% of the Venezuelan population is undernourished -- a figure second only to Haiti -- which affects more than 10% of boys and girls in their healthy growth.
Venezuelan labour legislation establishes that unions have the right to introduce petitions, disputes and strike calls before the Ministry of Labour. However, the teachers' rank and file has had to take the initiative given the precarious or non-existent activity of the teachers' union federations. This has generated a power vacuum which has begun to be resolved through the original constituent power.
The mobilisation and cessation of activities has been carried out by assemblies since January 9, 20232 and, although a few grassroots unions have put forward specific demands, the federations empowered to negotiate with the employer have ignored their obligations, generating a vacuum by not covering the formal mechanisms in the matter. This occurs while the regional and local authorities of the Ministry of Education press for the face-to-face development of the second half of the school year 2022-2023. For this reason, rank and file teachers have convened assemblies together with families through workplaces, where support for carrying out specific activities virtually, has been agreed along with support from parents for the protest activity of the their children's teachers, taking minutes of these meetings etc.
In response, the government has issued communications from educational authorities in which the decisions of the workplace assemblies are not mentioned and which are nothing more than an escalation of tensions between the constituted power and the assemblies.
Added to this is the embarrassing spectacle of videos in which motorised groups threaten teachers for demonstrating and demanding better salaries—events which should lead to an investigation by the Attorney General of the Republic.
Although Venezuelan legislation establishes the centrality of popular power in the organisation of the State, it seems that this is valid when the process is induced from the top down and is invalid when it is enunciated at the bases of the world of work. A host of officials seem prisoners of supine ignorance, with regards to the constitutive bases of the model of participatory democracy.
However, the defensive act of the teachers carried out in order to preserve the legitimacy of the original conflictive action that began at the start of January, is now being transformed into a democratic culture, one of self-organisation. This is a fact that begins to recreate the concepts of citizenship, popular power and labour rights, something we had not seen in the education sector since 1999.
Something similar occurs in SIDOR [Siderúrgica de Orinoco C.A. Venezuela’s largest steel corporation] which after the lifting of the conflict on the night of Friday, January 13, has become a hotbed of debate and proposals which aim to restart the fight for decent wages, a living wage, as well as aspects of social security. However, the union bureaucracy has been acting there, not only as force for containment, but in some cases it has been transformed into a scabbing operation.
Other sectors, such as universities, electricity and health, have been building agreements to participate in the march on January 23, which have an enormous potential for participation.
The government's concern is that this date coincides with the commemoration of January 23, 1958, when the people took to the streets to defeat the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, beginning the bourgeois democratic revolution and the establishment of the bi-regional regime of governmental alternation that lasted until 1998. Instead of advancing towards solving the wage problem, which could deactivate social protest, they have chosen to entrench themselves in the discourse of imperialist conspiracy, an error that could lead them to a more severe point of crisis.
The constituent culture that has emerged on the streets, has an unexpected capacity for self-organisation, self-activity and the generation of new narratives and ideas, which can only be approached from a negotiated solution via a salary increase or the cliff of authoritarianism.
Pavlov and Skinner Visit the Factory
Over the last few years, especially the period of shortages between 2014-2017, a very important social support program was launched called the Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción [Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP)], created on April 3, 2016. The CLAPs implemented the monthly food box which would reach some five million families, at a very low cost. The CLAP bag contains a kilo of dry grains, rice, oil, sugar, two jars of sardines and flour, which help alleviate the terrible situation of the population. However, in many cases this became an instrument to strengthen political loyalties, something that has been decreasing its social and even political usefulness.
At the same time, in recent years, a policy of bonuses granted monthly to the population, administered by the central government, has been implemented, with amounts that fluctuate in foreign currency equivalent, between 2 and 6 dollars each. At the current exchange rate, this is the amount granted by the system:
Programme For family members Amount in Dollars
(only granted to the head of the household)
Homes of the 1 member 2.13
Fatherland 2 members 2.66
3 members 4.00
4 members 5.32
5 members 6.65
6 or more 7.98
Childbirth For participation in the programme 5.39
Breastfeeding Whilst Looking after the baby 5.39
José Gregorio Hernández For the Disabled 4.00
These bonuses have become an instrument for classical conditioning (a la Pávlov) of the popular sectors and for positive behavioural reinforcement (as per Skinner), progressively losing its inclusive and cohesive character as a social programme. Those who oppose the neoliberal restoration, especially rank and file workers, are excluded from such programmes.
This situation has been shamelessly expressed in SIDOR, one of the largest concentrations of the Venezuelan industrial proletariat, who during the week of January 9-13 were in dispute and work stoppage. During the week of January 16 to 22, the management of SIDOR, a state company, had decided to implement a special bonus,but one that was only available to those who did not participate in the strike at the beginning of the year.
This unexpected visit by Pávlov and Skinner to the Venezuelan factories has become an unjustifiable and intolerable situation, which has generated massive rejection from the teachers' base and the working class of the country as a whole.
We hope that the high government echelons decide to correct this mistake and not turn it into a precedent for dealing with employer-employee relations.
Classical intellectuals leave the social movement alone
At the worst moment in the last twenty-five years for the Venezuelan working class and in the face of the awakening of grassroots teachers, one thing that makes the most noise is the overwhelming silence of an important part of the intelligentsia that identifies with the left but that finds it difficult to come out with even words in support of the struggle of the most humble.
It seems that they prefer to quietly reflect under the shadow of power. Nobody is asking them to distance themselves from the Maduro government, but rather to express ideas and initiatives from the perspective of the world of work and to get out of this terrible quagmire in which we find ourselves.
Luckily a new multicoloured intelligentsia is emerging, one which has decided to accompany the teachers' struggle, regardless of its proximity or distance from the government, and is renewing the ethical lessons of critical thinking, always on the side of the people.
The march on January 23 will be a clear indicator of how much the working class is willing or not to put up with the situation of inequality as expressed in wages. The single unified call for this mobilisation confirms that we are in a new stage of the social struggle in Venezuela3 .
The government still has the technical capacity to solve this problem before squandering the political capital it retains. In a context of economic crisis this would imply diminishing the profits of the bourgeoisies, profits that until now seemed insatiable. The key question is will it?
PhD in Pedagogical Sciences with post-doctural research in critical pedagogies and evaluation of educational quality. He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), of the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE), the Latin American Sociological Association (ALAS) and the Kairos Foundation. Research Director of the International Center for Other Voices in Education.