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Chávismo and Its Discontents: International Left Intellectuals Respond to Venezuelan Government’s Legislative Election Setback



Five hours after the polls had closed, the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced a landslide victory for the opposition in Venezuela’s the National Assembly elections.

Almost immediately after, President Maduro addressed the nation accepting “these adverse results,” the worst defeat for the followers of Hugo Chávez in the 20 elections since 1998. Maduro subsequently has called for a “deep process of revision and self-criticism” in the wake of the December 6th, 2015, election.

The response of international left intellectuals has ranged from critical support to outright rejection of the socialist project in Venezuela. We argue for the importance of recognizing the overarching influence of US imperialism and for the acceptance of using the state as an instrument of popular power by the international solidarity movement.

Report from Venezuela

Reporting from Venezuela three weeks after the election, Lisa Sullivan (pers. com.) comments: “In my experience, I have witnessed a whole generation of my neighbors and friends gain access to dignified housing, free education, stable jobs with honorable wages, free health care and a sense of profound citizenship as full participants in rebuilding their country.”

Sullivan, from the US, is a long-term solidarity activist who brought up her family in Venezuela. She acknowledges that “a lot of this is now falling apart,” but adds “to slander everything that took place in the past 15 years in order to justify critiques today” renders one “irrelevant” at best.

Need for an Attitude Change

Chilean sociologist and activist Marta Harnecker continues to be a critical supporter of Chávismo. Writing in the January 2016 issue of Monthly Review, Harnecker advocates for a union of social movements with the left government, as long as each side of the equation learns to behave themselves properly.

Critical of the Leninist formulation of state and party, Harnecker calls instead for an attitude change where social movements “overcome the impulse to oppose everything that comes from the government,” while left governments have to “be very flexible and patient in working with social movement leaders.”

Harnecker cautions that “the road to socialism (is) difficult but not impossible,” due to many constraints including what she characterizes as “elites who were previously dominant.” The pivotal presence of US imperialism is largely down played from her configuration of the wielders of political power.

Transnational Capitalist Class

Ignoring, or indeed denying, the phenomenon of US imperialism gets further developed by prominent academic leftist William L. Robinson at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author most recently of Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (2014, Cambridge University Press). Robinson acknowledges that in former times Latin America was subject to Spanish, Portuguese, and British colonialism. But in the current era a transnational capitalist class has arisen, which transcends state boundaries and renders the notion of US imperialism moot.

This formulation of an amorphous transnational capitalist class, rather than US imperialism, as the primary international antagonist of the social movements has gotten considerable currency among international left intellectuals, but little traction on the ground in Venezuela where it stands in contradiction to the iron heel of the US military’s some half dozen bases in Colombia on Venezuela’s western border, the US Fourth Fleet patrolling Venezuela’s Caribbean border along with additional US military bases a few air minutes away in Aruba and Curaçao.

US Regime Change Efforts in Venezuela

Our experience on delegations to Venezuela is that grassroots activists to a person will tell you of the interference by US governmental agencies such as the CIA and USAID along with quasi-US-governmental organs such as the National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, National Democrat Institute for International Affairs, etc.

It is not for nothing that the US had an Office of Transition Initiates (OTI) – tagline “helping local partners advance peace and democracy” – to achieve regime change in Venezuela. The US illegally funnels millions of dollars annually to the Venezuelan opposition, coordinated by the US embassy. These efforts to mobilize and organize the opposition and build its capacity – so-called “democracy promotion,” though really the opposite – have borne fruit in the most recent Venezuelan election.

To My Chávista Friends

The existence of US imperialism is not denied by Berkeley author Clif Ross who has written several books about Venezuela and Latin America. He is a former faithful Chávista supporter turned apostate. Ross doesn’t distinguish US imperialism from, say, a non-existent Cuban imperialism. He is on record to “defend the Bolivarian process” against both imperialisms.

His To My Chávista Friends is a critique of Chávismo that provides a left gloss to a view that is fundamentally consonant with the US State Department. Ross proclaims: “The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is over. It failed.”

Further, the “20th century socialism” of the USSR, China, and Cuba is dismissed as simply a “nightmare,” without any acknowledgement of the social orders that were replaced and the enormous material gains attained by those populaces.

Ross gives Chávismo failing grades for not accommodating to neo-liberal capitalism, criticizing the Venezuelan government for having “the most business unfriendly environment in the world,” referencing the World Bank. Adding, “I wouldn’t blame the business sector for fighting back against the relentless onslaught of attacks by the government over the past 16 years.”

His sympathies are further revealed in his resurrecting hardline opposition politician Leopoldo López as some kind of socialist. López, scion of one of Venezuela’s wealthiest families, is currently serving time for inciting violent protests in February 2014 following opposition electoral losses. The economic sabotage in Venezuela by large privately held corporations, including proven uncovering of massive hoarding, is deemed “some imaginary ‘economic war.’”

We believe that it is not Ross’s intention to promote US imperialism. Rather his is a reaction to the deep disillusionment shared by many of the failure of Chávismo to overcome in a decade and a half some of the challenges of transitioning from capitalism to socialism, including transforming the relations of production. Seeing blemishes on both sides, he wishes for an untainted, pure third way transcending statist solutions.

Rats Leaving a Sinking Ship

We do not believe that the metaphor of rats leaving a sinking ship applies to the international left defectors from the Chávista camp. The ship has not sunk.

Of the five branches of the Venezuelan government, only the unicameral National Assembly is currently controlled by the notoriously fractious opposition coalition made up of 20 political parties. The executive is still held by Maduro, whose term extends to 2019, although he may have to weather a recall referendum. Meanwhile the Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino pledged the military’s allegiance, stating “The president is the highest authority of the state and we reiterate our absolute loyalty and unconditional support for him.”

The Chávista’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) remains by far the largest in Venezuela with some 6 million giving the party 42% of the vote in the December election. A militant Chávista base will staunchly resist neoliberalism and defend the advances of the last 15 years such as a million new housing units and access to medical care and education.

The opposition MUD coalition, despite the US government’s best efforts to herd these contentious cats, can only agree on their opposition to Maduro. Voted in reaction to mounting economic problems, MUD may not have a consensus program beyond opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup’s announced 6-month plan to oust Maduro.

Slippery Slope

One thing is clear: all of Venezuela’s current problems were inherited by Maduro when he assumed the presidency in a close election in April 2013. As one of us had commented back then: “The problems of building 21st century socialism on a capitalist foundation include crime, inefficiency/shortages, and inflation/devaluation. These are the problems inherited from the existing capitalist order and exacerbated by the sabotage of the opposition. This is the time bomb that has been handed to Maduro.” And that time bomb has been ticking ever since.

From the moment that the Venezuelan presidential election results were announced in 2013, a campaign orchestrated by Washington was launched by the Venezuelan opposition to show their rage in order to destabilize the country and overthrow Maduro, followed by the even more violent guarimbas of early 2014. . The opposition launched a campaign, costing the lives of 43 Venezuelans, to achieve by extra-constitutional means what could not be achieved through the democratic election process.

From the get go, Maduro was on a slippery slope of defending his government while postponing the hard decisions required to raise the ridiculously low price of oil, the dysfunctional multiple currency exchange rates, food shortages, etc. The longer he delayed, the worse the problems became while his political capital continued to dissipate.

A flurry of recommendations have been floated to right the economic ship, as characterized by James Suggett, ranging from right to left: neoliberalism, market-based reform, correction and maintenance of current policies, socialism with the state, and socialism without the state. None are without high risks, and all require a societal consensus which presently does not exist in Venezuela’s highly polarized polity.

Role of International Solidarity

So what is the role of international solidarity at this historical moment in Venezuela? Particularly what is the role of us in the United States given our government’s clear intervention on behalf of “regime change?”

First we need to guard against buying into American exceptionalism, which sees our country as having a unique role – some would say god-given role – as arbiter of freedom and democracy in the world. American exceptionalism is a deep-seated heresy that even infects the left in this country. All too often we assume a natural right to appropriate and to enter into debates in other countries on an equal footing with those who will bear the consequences resulting from those debates. This hubris is particularly prevalent among left intellectuals.

In fact, we only bear the consequences in a general sense that set-backs in left governments and movements affect our own efforts to build a better world through changing our own government. But we are personally untouched by the economic and social effects of decisions in countries like Venezuela.

We are not stakeholders in Venezuela’s “deep process of revision and self-criticism” and therefore need not insert ourselves in their process. Rather, we need our own deep process of revision and self-criticism to determine why the solidarity movement is not more effective in its efforts to modify US behavior. We clearly are stakeholders in US imperialism and thus share responsibility for the suffering it imposes on the lives of Venezuelans and movements throughout the world that dare to chart their own course.

We have to ask ourselves, “Do my statements empower and amplify the articulated priorities of the movements and governments I am in solidarity with, or do they strengthen the US government narrative and create even greater space for it to intervene in the sovereign affairs of other countries?” Anyone who does not include the effects of US imperialist intervention in their analysis is almost surely doing the latter. And, anyone who ignores the expressed priorities of the movements and governments that are living the struggle, most certainly cannot claim the mantle of “critical support” to validate their commentary.

Roger D. Harris is the past president of the Task Force on the Americas ( Chuck Kaufman is national co-coordinator of the Alliance of Global Justice ( Both have traveled to Venezuela on a number of political delegations, where they met with both Chávista and opposition representatives. They may be contacted through the websites of their respective organizations.

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