Venezuela: Left Discussion and Debate
Venezuela is heading towards an increasingly dangerous situation, in which open civil war could become a real possibility. So far over 100 people have been killed as a result of street protests, most of these deaths are the fault of the protesters themselves (to the extent that we know the cause).
The possibility of civil war becomes more likely as long as the international media obscure who is responsible for the violence and the international left remains on the sidelines in this conflict and fails to show solidarity with the Bolivarian socialist movement in Venezuela.
If the international left receives its news about Venezuela primarily from the international media, it is understandable why it is being so quiet. After all, this mainstream media consistently fails to report who is instigating the violence in this conflict.
For example, a follower of CNN or the New York Times would not know that of the 103 who have been killed as a result of street protests, 27 were the direct or indirect result of the protesters themselves. Another 14 were the result of lootings; in one prominent case, because looters set fire to a store and ended up getting engulfed in the flames themselves. Fourteen deaths are attributable to the actions of state authorities (where in almost all cases those responsible have been charged), and 44 are still under investigation or in dispute. This is according to data from the office of the Attorney General, which itself has recently become pro-opposition.
Also unknown to most consumers of the international media would be that opposition protesters detonated a bomb in the heart of Caracas on July 11, wounding seven National Guard soldiers or that a building belonging to the Supreme Court was burnt by opposition protesters on June 12th or that opposition protesters attacked a maternity hospital on May 17.
In other words, it is possible that much of the international left has been misled about the violence in Venezuela; thinking that the government is the only one responsible, that President Nicolas Maduro has declared himself to be dictator for life (though he has actually confirmed that the presidential elections scheduled for late 2018 will proceed as planned), or that all dissent is punishable with prison (disputed by major opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez – who was partly responsible for the post-election violence in 2014 – recently being released from prison and placed under house arrest).
If this is the reason for the silence on Venezuela, then the left should be ashamed for not having read its own critiques of the mainstream media.
All of the foregoing does not contradict that there are plenty of places where one might criticize the Maduro Government for having made mistakes with regard to how it has handled the current situation, both economically and politically. However, criticisms – of which I have made several myself – do not justify taking either a neutral or pro-opposition stance in this momentous conflict. As South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Perhaps the Venezuelan case is also confusing to outsiders because President Maduro is in power and the opposition is not. It could thus be difficult to see the opposition as being an “oppressor.”
However, for an internationalist left, it should not be so confusing. After all, the opposition in Venezuela receives significant support not only from private businesses but also the U.S. Government, the international right and transnational capital.
Perhaps progressives feel that the Maduro Government has lost all democratic legitimacy and that this is why they cannot support it. According to the mainstream media coverage, Maduro canceled regional elections scheduled for December 2016, prevented the recall referendum from happening and neutralized the National Assembly.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these claims one by one.
First, regional elections (state governors and mayors) were indeed supposed to take place in late 2016, but the National Electoral Council (CNE) postponed them with the argument that political parties needed to re-register first. Leaving aside the validity of this argument, the CNE rescheduled the elections recently for December 2017. This postponement of a scheduled election is not unprecedented in Venezuela because it happened before, back in 2004, when local elections were postponed for a full year. Back then, at the height of President Hugo Chavez’s power; hardly anyone objected.
As for the recall referendum, it was well known that it would take approximately ten months to organize between its initiation and its culmination. However, the opposition initiated the process in April 2016, far too late for the referendum to take place in 2016 as they wanted. If it takes place in 2017, there would be no new presidential election – according to the constitution – and the vice-president would take over for the remainder of the term.
Finally, with regard to the disqualification of the National Assembly, this was another self-inflicted wound on the part of the opposition. That is, even though the opposition had won 109 out of 167 seats (65%) outright, they insisted on swearing in three opposition members whose election was in dispute because of fraud claims.
As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that until these three members are removed, most decisions of the national assembly would not be valid.
In other words, none of the arguments against the democratic legitimacy of the Maduro Government hold much water. Moreover, polls repeatedly indicate that even though Maduro is fairly unpopular, a majority of Venezuelans want him to finish his term in office, which expires in January 2019. As a matter of fact, Maduro’s popularity (24% in March, 2017) is not as low as several other conservative presidents in Latin America at the moment, such as that of Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto (17% in March, 2017), Brazil’s Michel Temer (7% in June, 2017) or Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos (14% in June, 2017).
Now that we have addressed the possible reasons the international left has been reluctant to show solidarity with the Maduro Government and the Bolivarian socialist movement, we need to examine what “neutrality” in this situation would end up meaning – in other words, what allowing the opposition to come to power via an illegal and violent transition would mean.
First and foremost, their coming to power will almost certainly mean that all Chavistas – whether they currently support President Maduro or not – will become targets for persecution. Although it was a long time ago, many Chavistas have not forgotten the “Caracazo” – when in February 1989, then-president Carlos Andres Perez meted out retaliation on poor neighborhoods for protesting against his government and wantonly killed somewhere between 400 and 1,000 people. More recently, during a short-lived coup against President Chávez in April 2002 the current opposition showed it was more than willing to unleash reprisals against Chavistas.
Most do not know this, but during the two-day coup over 60 Chavistas were killed in Venezuela – not including the 19 killed, on both sides of the political divide, in the lead-up to the coup. The post-election violence of April 2013 left 7 dead, and the Guarimbas of February to April 2014 left 43 dead. Although the death count in each of these cases represented a mix of opposition supporters, Chavistas and non-involved bystanders; the majority belonged to the Chavista side of the political divide.
Now, during the most recent wave of guarimbas, there have also been several incidents in which a Chavista, who was near an opposition protest, was chased and killed because protesters recognized them to be a Chavista in some way.
In other words, the danger that Chavistas will be generally persecuted if the opposition should take over the government is very real. Even though the opposition includes reasonable individuals who would not support such a persecution, the current leadership of the opposition has done nothing to rein in the fascist tendencies within its own ranks. If anything, they have encouraged these tendencies.
Second, even though the opposition has not published a concrete plan for what it intends to do once in government – which is also one of the reasons the opposition remains almost as unpopular as the government – individual statements by opposition leaders indicate that they would immediately proceed to implement a neoliberal economic program along the lines of President Michel Temer in Brazil or Mauricio Macri in Argentina. They might succeed in reducing inflation and shortages this way, but at the expense of eliminating subsidies and social programs for the poor across the board. Also, they would roll back all of the policies supporting communal councils and communes that have been a cornerstone of participatory democracy in the Bolivarian revolution.
So, instead of silence, neutrality or indecision from the international left in the current conflict in Venezuela, what is needed is active solidarity with the Bolivarian socialist movement. Such solidarity means vehemently opposing all efforts to overthrow the government of President Maduro during his current term in office. Aside from the patent illegality that overthrowing the Maduro Government would represent, it would also literally be a deadly blow to Venezuela’s socialist movement and to the legacy of President Chavez. The international left does not even need to take a position on whether the proposed constitutional assembly or negotiations with the opposition is the best way to resolve the current crisis. That is really up to Venezuelans to decide. Opposing intervention and disseminating information on what is actually happening in Venezuela, though, are the two things where non-Venezuelans can play a constructive role.
Gregory Wilpert is the author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government (Verso Books, 2007)
In recent weeks, a number of Venezuelan specialists on the left side of the political spectrum have published and posted pieces that place them in an anti-Chavista, “ni-ni” position that consists of “a plague on both your houses” with regard to Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition. I consider myself a “critical Chavista.”
It’s not an easy position to be in, particularly because the last thing I would want to do is to act in any way that would favor the right (that is the Venezuelan opposition and its allies abroad). On the other hand, I have always opposed (even in my writing) the position of some people on the left who feel that U.S. leftists should not publicly express criticisms of socialist governments. Criticism (including public criticism) is necessary as it is part of the process of assimilating lessons. Nevertheless, at this point, I believe there is a conclusive need to support the government in spite of the numerous criticisms that I have (some more profound than others).
The recent articles that harshly attack the Maduro government have been published in Jacobin magazine by Gabriel Hetland and another by Mike Gonzalez as well as Hetland’s piece posted by NACLA in which he uses the expression “que se vayan todos.” More recently NACLA posted an interview with Alejandro Velasco that was originally published by Nueva Sociedad.
I know a number of people both in Venezuela and U.S. academia who I used to see eye to eye on with regard to Chavez and I now find them expressing total rejection of and even animosity toward the government. The only thing that binds us now is our common support for the need to defend Venezuelan sovereignty, and sometimes not even that.
What are the arguments of the ni-ni position that I agree with and what are the ones I disagree with:
1. Corruption is an extremely serious problem in Venezuela which the government has not done nearly enough to confront, though some timid measures have been taken (eg. over the last six months in the oil industry).
2. The government has violated certain democratic principles — the decision to strip Henrique Capriles of the right to participate in elections on grounds of corruption; and the delay of the gubernatorial elections; but not the decision not to hold the recall in 2016 (since the opposition didn’t have their act together on that one).
3. The negative role of the “state apparatus and the Chavista elite” — Velasco begins his interview with these words. I agree that the state bureaucracy and Chavista elite have stifled internal Chavista democracy and in doing so have discouraged mobilization.
Nevertheless, I also recognize that this bloc (the Chavista bureaucrats) buttresses the Chavista hold on power as it has a mobilization and organizational capacity that would be lost should Maduro unleash a “revolution within the revolution.”
Hastily turning power over to the rank and file would have disastrous immediate consequences. Thus, for instance, Chavez’s decision to implement the Plan Guayana Socialista with the “worker presidents” of state companies was a failure, because the labor movement in those companies, almost 100 percent Chavista, went at each other's throats.
4. The Chavista movement has lost a large number of its active supporters. In addition to the factors named by the “ni-nis” (corruption, government bungling, etc.) there is the factor of "desgaste" (wearing down process over time) which is inevitable and doesn’t in itself reflect negatively on the Chavista leadership. Eighteen years is a long time.
1. My most important disagreement at this moment is the statement that the Maduro government is authoritarian or heading in an authoritarian direction. The “ni-nis” who make this statement never acknowledge the importance of context. They recognize, though in some cases they play down (not so in the case of Hetland’s Jacobin piece), the violent activity unleashed by the opposition, but don’t relate the state’s actions to the challenges it is facing.
Just to provide one example. A totally anti-government hostile media encourages the audacity and extremism of the opposition for two reasons. First, the police and National Guard are held back from responding firmly and thus they lose their dissuasive capacity.
And second, the protesters themselves feel empowered. Both factors have a dialectical relationship. In the U.S. or any other country, the corporate media (and some of the alternative media) would be completely sympathetic to the actions of security forces, even their excesses, in a situation of urban paralysis and urban violence over such an extended period of time (it’s been three and a half months).
Furthermore, to use the term “authoritarian” when the local media is so supportive of the opposition, is simply fallacious. It is true that the national TV channels (specifically Televen, Venevision, and Globovsion) are less hostile to the government than in 2002-2003 but they (perhaps with the exception of Venevision) are still more pro than anti-opposition. But almost all of the important written media both nationally and locally are vocally anti-government. And in the case of the international media, the bias has no limits.
2. Velasco says the government is not sincere about dialogue — there is no evidence one way of the other on this one.
3. The Chavista rank and file has little reason to actively support the Maduro government and for that reason 2 million of them abstained in December 2015.
Although obviously disillusionment is widespread, there are many important reasons for progressives and popular sectors to support the Maduro government: nationalistic foreign policy, rejection of neoliberal type agreements with international financial institutions, social programs that involve community participation; zero-sum-game policies that favor the popular sectors (example: the Bus Rapid Transit, BRT, that in Barcelona-Puerto La Cruz reserves one of two lanes on the main drag connecting the two cities to accordion-type buses at the expense of automobile traffic); and finally Maduro (in spite of all of his shortcomings as an administrator and failure to take necessary bold decisions) has proven to be a fighter and to convince his base that he’s not going to go down without a struggle to the end.
He has also attempted to mobilize his base; the failure to attempt to do so by Lula and Dilma Rousseff is a major reason why the impeachment against the latter went through.
4. Venezuela’s economic difficulties are not about low oil prices but about government ineptness. There are three causes of the economic crisis and they all have approximately the same weight: low oil prices, the economic war (with Julio Borges’s public campaign against multinational investments in Venezuela the existence of an economic war is clearer to see than in the past), and erroneous government policies. With regard to the latter (and here I probably diverge somewhat from Mark Weisbrot), I believe that decisions on economic policies were necessary and urgent, but that there were no easy and obvious choices and anyone that was made would have come with a price both politically and economically.
5. Government intransigence is due to the fact that the Chavista leaders don’t want to lose their privileges. This statement is misleading, even while there is undoubtedly an element of truth in it. But the statement assumes that Chavista leaders are all cynics and without any sense of idealism. Where is the scientific evidence to support this statement?
6. Luisa Ortega Diaz represents a neutral position which the Maduro government is unwilling to tolerate. In fact, regardless of her motives, she has assumed an explicitly pro-opposition position. In such a critical situation in which the opposition openly proposes anarchy as a means to unseat Maduro, it makes sense that the Chavistas are attempting to remove her from office.
Steve Ellner has taught economic history at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela since 1977 and also teaches in the Sucre Mission. He is the editor of "Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).