Venezuela and the Silence of the Left

Venezuela is nearing collapse It can turn violent soon. Last week Nicolás Maduro decreed a state of emergency and suspended constitutional rights. He fears “the Empire” is set to strike soon. This measure comes abruptly as the opposition demands Venezuelan Electoral Panel to ratify the 1.8 million signatures collected in just a few hours as a first step to constitutionally call for a referendum to remove him from power. And he is looking for ways to delay this process.

An article in CounterPunch written by Eric Draitser characterized the referendum as a coup orchestrated by the opposition to oust Maduro and destroy the legacy of Chávez’ revolution. It further argues that Venezuela’s economic predicament—already a humanitarian crisis—is the product of a plot of the Venezuelan right-wing elites that control the National Assembly and the U.S. imperial interests, comparing the current crisis in Venezuela with the overthrow of Allende in the seventies by Nixon, Kissinger, the CIA and the Chilean elites.

What Draitser and others do not mention is that the referendum is a constitutional right pursued by an opposition whose control of the National Assembly (Venezuela’s congress)  is legitimated by a landslide electoral victory in December 2015.  The article identifies the opposition with the right-wing elites when in reality the opposition is a coalition of parties and individuals that also include left and left-to-center ideological orientations. The President of the Assembly, for instance, Henry Ramos Allup has been the Vice-President of the Socialist International. Most importantly, the article also conveniently omits Maduro’s coup to the National Assembly. On December 30, 2015 he abruptly appointed twelve Supreme Court Justices as a way of invalidating any law passed by Venezuela’s elected legislative body, thus undermining the will of the Venezuelans who elected the members of the National Assembly.

The left acts as if all leftist governments must be unconditionally defended, no matter how authoritarian and corrupted they become. In acting this way they hark back to the Stalinist days of unconditional allegiance to the party, or to the Cold War years when even timid critiques to the left—even within the left–produced knee-jerk attacks and excommunications. The left has failed to critique a “leftist” government whose policies have led to the current crisis in Venezuela. It took Noam Chomsky ten years to realize that Chávez has become a dangerous authoritarian ruler who betrayed the grassroots movement born out of his initial emergence into the Venezuelan political scene. Slavoj Zizek is careful to remind us that Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chávez are authoritarian caudillos not be compared to Pablo Iglesias from Podemos or Alexis Tsipras from Syiriza. But Zizek is reluctant to use his acumen to shed light on Venezuela’s darkest hour. Venezuela was news while it was good news and while Chávez could be used as a banner for the left and his antics provided comic relief. But as soon as the country began to spiral towards ruination and Chavismo began to resemble another Latin American authoritarian regime, better to turn a blind eye.

The position of the left has been either to suspend a critical stance or not to address Venezuela’s situation at all. The left media is quick to condemn the coup to Dilma Rousseff orchestrated by the Brazilian opposition–as it should, or Macri’s neoliberal initiatives in Argentina poised to undo the Peronista policies that produced an undeniable upward mobility in Argentina. But when Venezuela comes up the left intelligentsia draws a blank and changes the topic. As if critiquing an authoritarian regime disguised under a leftist rhetoric means condemning all the left. At this point, a good measure of self-criticism would be constructive to a left in peril in Latin America. What leftist leaders and thinkers should have said and didn’t say (with the exception of José Mujica in Uruguay, who wrote a letter to Nicolás Maduro pleading to cease the brutal repression of peaceful protests) was that Venezuela cannot be an example of a successful leftist government. After all, Maduro can do more harm in Venezuela than Mauricio Macri in Argentina. Macri attempted to name by decree two Supreme Court Judges in mid December (2015) and days later Judge Alejo Ramos Padilla issued an injunction blocking Marcri’s appointments. A few days later Maduro appointed twelve Chavista judges to Venezuela’s Supreme Court. His decision, of course, was challenged by the National Assembly, but to no avail.

The default position in the left is to blame Venezuela’s dismal situation on American interventionism. To be sure, the U.S. did play a role in all this. There was the attempted coup in 2002 led by a misguided opposition, with the support of Bush’s government in the U.S. and Aznar’s government in Spain; it didn’t last more than two days in power. But as abhorrent as this intervention was, the U.S. did not have nearly as active a role as the hawkish U.S. interventions in the seventies, the one in Chile being, perhaps, the most infamous. American interventions have shifted focus to the Middle East. After the failed coup, the U.S. left Venezuela pretty much to its own devices, with a relative thawing of relations when Barack Obama came to power. In March 2015 Barack Obama declared Venezuela a national security threat, providing his government with the tools to block assets in the U.S. belonging to Venezuelan officials involved in corruption, implicated in drug trafficking and accused of violation of human rights. But this declaration has had negligible impact in Venezuela’s internal affairs. The truth is that the U.S has been relatively indifferent to Venezuela’s problems since 2002. This indifference is not motivated by a genuine respect for Venezuela’s sovereignty. It has simply been more convenient and less costly to leave things as they are, as long as Venezuela continues to provide the U.S. with 17 % of its oil consumption. Ironically, despite Chavista anti-imperialist rhetoric, the U.S. has been and continues to be Venezuela’s most important commercial partner. How different a situation from that of Cuba, besieged for decades by an aggressive economic embargo. The debacle of Venezuela, its social decomposition, the demise of its middle class, the collapse of its economy, its scarcity of goods, its corruption and drug trade, its health care crisis and its alarming public safety record cannot be simply “dismissed” as a consequence of American interventionism.

Many historians argue that Venezuela’s plight is the eternal recurrence of countries cursed and blessed by oil riches. To prove their point they cite past civil unrest like “El Caracazo” in February 1989, a week long wave of protests and clashes that resulted in hundreds of casualties. True. But never has Venezuela experienced a crisis of such proportions, never has the country been in such a generalized humanitarian calamity, never has its public safety record and its corruption been so dismal and unfettered. And as sound as these structural arguments are, it is important to realize that to a large extent this is a crisis mostly made in Venezuela.

Chavismo had a chance to do things differently, in ways which could have averted this meltdown. Save the hiccup of 2002, Chavismo has been in power uninterruptedly for seventeen years, holding the reins of all branches of civic and military power. Chavismo has also enjoyed oil revenues unprecedented in the history of the country. Much of this wealth was grotesquely mismanaged, fueling extravagant subsidies that peaked in the countless and expensive elections organized to barely disguise the government’s authoritarian inclinations behind a veil of legitimacy. The acts of corruption perpetrated by private officials and the military equals macro-economic cyphers: $300 billions disappeared in the last decade as the coffers of banks in Andorra, Switzerland and other fiscal paradises spill over with wealth stolen from Venezuelans. This cypher, by the way, was not provided by the Venezuelan opposition, but by renowned Chavistas who have been with the “revolution” from its beginnings. Jorge Giordani, an old communist who served as Minister of Economic Planning, was the first to blow the whistle and then other ministers joined, like Héctor Navarro and Ana Elisa Osorio, all in Chávez’ cabinet from 1999 through 2013. But nowhere does the left acknowledge these facts as contributing to the current crisis in Venezuela.

In his unbounded paranoia, Chávez made sure to arm his militias (Círculos Bolivarianos) with sophisticated weapons. Caracas boasts the highest murder rate in the world. Twenty-five thousand Venezuelans are killed every year (an undeclared war) and these militias are ready to disrupt peaceful protests with violence, or work for the interests of emerging drug lords inside and outside of government. Wary of perceived traitors to the revolution, Chávez reshuffled his increasingly smaller inner circle of aides to key posts in the government. Maduro followed his mentor. Anyone critical of Chávez’ policies could be expelled from his inner circle; some were even imprisoned. Venezuelans remember General Raúl Isaías Baduel, Chávez’ Minister of Defense, a die-hard Chavista instrumental in restituting Chávez to power after the coup in 2002. As Chávez attempted to centralize more power, Baduel criticized his authoritarian tendencies. Baduel was arrested at gunpoint from his home and thrown in jail. The case of judge María Lourdes Alfuni is better known internationally. In 2009, Chávez disagreed with one of her rulings and sentenced her to thirty years in prison, a glaring violation of judiciary independence. Alfuni was placed in a prison with convicts she had previously sentenced. Fearing for her safety—inmates tried to burn her alive– human rights organizations lobbied for her release and Noam Chomsky finally wrote an open letter demanding her release and distancing himself from Chávez. She became ill with cancer and after emergency surgery was granted house arrest. Evidence later emerged that during her detention she was brutally raped by guards and officials from the Ministry of Justice. For years Venezuelans witnessed the same names play different roles in government, most of them deeply unqualified and many belonging to the military. No wonder all areas of Venezuela’s government and society in general have collapsed.

To assert that these ills are caused by American interventionism and by oil wars in the international market robs Venezuelans of agency and absolves them from the responsibility to reckon with the ways they shaped their current history. There are many oil rich countries currently enduring the dip in oil prices orchestrated by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, but not one of these countries resembles Venezuela’s devastation. Such assertions ignore that Chávez expropriated closed to seven thousand productive industries now in ruins, forcing the country to import with less money many of the goods it previously produced. Such assertions ignore that Chavismo ruined PDVSA–Venezuela’s oil company–by appointing inept and corrupt managers who turned the company into a platform to launder cash. Such assertions ignore that Chávez disregarded warnings from economists urging him to curb spending, urging not to impose price caps on products at the expense of producers reluctant to produce at a loss; to these warnings Chávez arrogantly replied that oil would reach the $200/barrel mark by 2015; it is merely $50 now and production costs almost exceed revenues. Such assertions ignore that people are dying in hospitals because medicines as basic as antibiotics cannot be found in Venezuela’s pharmacies and hospitals and doctors have to rush through surgeries because water and electricity might run out at any moment, as it does daily throughout the country. There is a humanitarian crisis in the country’s health systems (public and private), but Maduro refuses humanitarian aid stating it is hard to find a country with a better healthcare system than Venezuela. Such assertions ignore that Venezuela is the most catastrophic economy in the world with a 700% inflation projected to reach 1200% as the country enters default in the third quarter of 2016, with a byzantine currency exchange policy stubbornly kept in place to facilitate embezzlement in the billions of dollars. Such assertions ignore that both, Chávez and Maduro feigned not to see how the drug business has permeated the highest spheres of power in the country, a reality now undeniable: the First Lady’s nephews await trial in a New York City prison, after been arrested in Honduras for trying to push 80o kg of cocaine into the U.S., a cargo of cocaine that took off from the presidential ramp in Caracas’s airport.  The litany is long and can’t be blamed on U.S. intervention alone.

The left in Latin America has failed to criticize Chavismo, but the right has cunningly jumped to the opportunity. Right-wing politicians, in their electoral campaigns and in their attempts to impeach leftist leaders, love to use Venezuela as a convenient example of a political model to be avoided at all cost. Why hasn’t the left exercised a sensible measure of self-criticism and offer a candid reflection on the Venezuelan case as a way of countering right-wing opportunism?

In 2014, I attended the march celebrating Martin Luther King’s Day in Oakland., I met an old white American donning a cowboy hat and a t-shirt that flaunted a portrait of a radiant Chavez with the PSUV logo (United Socialist Party of Venezuela). I asked him if he had been to Venezuela, he said no. He told me he was eighty-four years old. I told him I was Venezuelan and he mumbled with a thick American accent: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” I asked him what he thought of Chávez. He said: “He tells it like it is” and referred with admiration to Chavez’ performance in 2006 at the United Nations, when he compared Bush to the devil. To me that was one more display of demagoguery from a populist leader with a penchant for histrionics. It troubled me then that such performance would draw international support from people on the left. It was almost too easy. People seemed to relish in a South American leader who “tells is it like it is” (this is, by the way, what Trump supporters say of their candidate: “Trump tells it like it is”). What troubles me even more, in the face of Venezuela’s hopeless present, is that such uncritical sympathy for Chávez cast a veil over the fact that Venezuela’s current ruination is in large measure the consequence of his policies and his political solipsism. Sympathizers still exonerate Chávez from responsibility: “Maduro is not Chávez,” I tire of hearing. And it is true, Maduro lacks Chávez’ charisma and political capital. But Maduro in a more substantial way is Chávez. In power for just three years, Maduro reaps now what Chávez sowed for fourteen years. Chávez was lucky and died just at the right moment. We shouldn’t forget that Chávez appointed Maduro as his successor as he left for Cuba to die. And there you have it: Maduro is Chávez’s most tangible legacy as everything dissolves into violence and misery.

In the famous opening of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Marx quotes Hegel’s affirmation, according to which historical events are first tragedy and then farce. I believe that the chapter written by Chavismo in Venezuela is simultaneously tragedy and farce.

Pedro Lange-Chorion is a professor in the Latin American Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.