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Venezuela and the Global Left: What We Might Learn from Our Venezuelan Counterparts


Venezuela has recently seen a series of protests against the country’s elected government of President Nicolás Maduro, the successor of the late Hugo Chávez. The protests have been organized by right-wing opposition leaders and have been comprised largely of middle- and upper-class youth (and, of course, supported by the Obama administration). While the protesters cite discontent with product shortages, inflation, and violent crime, prominent figures like opposition leader Leopoldo López have openly called for Maduro’s overthrow. The strategy behind the protests has been to provoke violence (or, provocation failing, to stage it) in an effort to undermine the government, much as the Venezuelan business class has long sought to disrupt the economy in order to foment discontent. This strategy is cynical but in some ways logical, since the right-wing opposition has been unable to win elections. The majority of Venezuelans support the basic goals of the Chávez and Maduro governments and consider their government relatively democratic, both by regional standards and compared to the pre-Chávez era.

What follows is not an exhaustive factual corrective to media depictions of the recent protests (for correctives see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but rather some reflections on how leftists outside Venezuela have responded to Chavismo and to the recent protests, and what I think are some of the common mistakes in this regard. In particular, I argue that the support that some on the global left have expressed for the recent opposition protests is extremely misguided. Such positions seem to derive from a reliance on corporate media accounts of the protests as well as a dangerously naïve, “ultra-left” perspective that fails to appreciate the current balance of forces in Venezuela.

I propose that two questions should be central to our discussions of international solidarity: 1) How do Venezuelan progressives and radicals—that is, people who want a more equitable, democratic society—perceive their government? and 2) How might a left-leaning government like Maduro’s be pulled in a more revolutionary direction in a way that avoids strengthening the domestic right and imperial powers like the U.S. government? There are important lessons to be learned from grassroots activists in Venezuela, who in general have taken a position of critical support for the Chávez and Maduro governments. Leftists outside the country should listen to those voices, prioritizing the fight against imperialism while also engaging in critical discussion of the process with all its successes and problems.

 

Chavismo and the Opposition: Basic Context and Common Distortions

Since Hugo Chávez’s first election in 1998, the “Chavistas” have won 18 of the 19 total elections and referenda that have been held at the national, regional, and municipal levels, most recently winning the December 2013 municipal elections by a clear margin. Most of the opposition has never really accepted the government’s legitimacy, though. After Nicolás Maduro’s relatively slim margin of victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the April 2013 election to succeed Chávez, the right smelled blood; despite a lack of evidence, they insisted that the Maduro victory was a fraud (a claim supported by the Obama administration for a while) and called their followers to the streets, leading to the deaths of at least ten government supporters.

But the failure of that violence to bring down the Maduro government, and then the Chavista victories in December, have made clear that Chavismo was not simply about Chávez. Since 2003 Venezuela has cut poverty in half and reduced extreme poverty by 70 percent. Health care, education, pensions, and other social welfare programs have also expanded considerably. These policies, and voters’ widespread rejection of the neoliberal economic policies favored by the opposition, have translated to majority support for Chávez and now Maduro. The neoliberal opposition enjoys broad legitimacy only among middle- and upper-class Venezuelans, who are a sizable minority but a minority nonetheless.

Chavismo has not only signified material redistribution. A notable feature of Chavismo that sets it apart from both Soviet-style “socialism” and twentieth-century populism are the experiments in grassroots empowerment and popular decision-making that have emerged, particularly since 2006. Millions have participated in community-run media outlets, worker cooperatives, community governance structures called communal councils, and other institutions of participatory democracy. These structures are the result of a complex, ongoing process of negotiation between state institutions and (often more radical) forces at the grassroots level [1].

What of the commonly heard criticisms, though? The most familiar is that Chávez and now Maduro control the state, the economy, and the media in dictatorial fashion. While there are some instances of undue executive intervention in the judicial system, as there are in most countries (including the U.S.), and scattered instances of patronage, most of these critiques lack credibility. The argument about the media is easily refuted, as Mark Weisbrot’s recent detailed analysis on the matter has done. State TV channels account for a tiny portion of audience share: 6 percent according to a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, or 8.4 percent according to a 2013 AGB Nielsen analysis (which, incidentally, was conducted on behalf of the privately-owned Venevisión, which is the country’s biggest TV station and harshly critical of the government). Most Venezuelan media sources, including the major newspapers, are still owned and controlled by wealthy private interests. Most oppose Chavismo, and some even openly supported a 2002 military coup against Chávez. We might speculate about what would happen to CNN or the New York Times if they advocated the military overthrow of the U.S. government. We can have a philosophical debate about what the proper limits of free speech should be—for instance, should opposition media and protesters be free to post photos of government repression in Bulgaria or Egypt and pass them off as being from Venezuela?—but such activities would not be permitted by most governments, especially governments that have been the targets of foreign-backed military coups. The government has indeed placed some limits (still very loose ones) on media activity, but those limits seem justified or at least understandable given the context.

The chatter about recent “media blackouts” also alleges that private media are engaging in “self-censorship.” Much to the protesters’ dismay, some media outlets have hesitated to openly support calls for a coup, and have not necessarily given the protesters a 24/7 national mouthpiece in the way that they have typically done in the past. On the other hand, the private media have hardly become pro-government, as even a cursory look at the newspapers El Universal or El Nacional reveals; private TV stations like Venevisión and Globovisión have continued to publish extended interviews with right-wing opposition leaders during the recent protests. The slight change in media practice is nonetheless seen by the protesters as a great affront, for they are accustomed to an automatic wave of celebratory coverage, unalloyed with any complexity or critique whatsoever, whenever a few hundred or few thousand mostly white Venezuelans take to the streets of their middle- and upper-class neighborhoods to denounce the government. The thoroughly-spoiled child will always react with extreme indignation when denied the $500 toy in the store window.

Far-right voices in Venezuela are attributing the slight change in the media to government intimidation, but it more likely reflects a calculated decision by the mainstream opposition leadership that they’re further undermining their legitimacy when they support coup attempts so openly [2]. The most prominent opposition leader, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, has actually criticized others’ public calls for the government’s overthrow, presumably because he fears that such blatantly undemocratic behavior will further hurt the opposition. (It’s kind of like when Pat Robertson criticized creationist Ken Ham, who recently debated Bill Nye the Science Guy, for making a mockery of the religious right.) The right remains essentially united in their goals, but somewhat divided over tactics.

Who is responsible for the deaths of the dozen or so people killed over the past two weeks? We still don’t know for sure in each case, but we do know “that the political allegiances of the victims and their causes of death are varied,” as analyst Jake Johnston notes. State agents and/or civilian Chavistas may be responsible for some of the violence, but there is no evidence to indicate that Maduro has endorsed any killings, and indeed he has strongly condemned all of them and ordered the arrest of intelligence agents accused of firing on demonstrators. Common sense would also tell us that the government has every interest in avoiding violence, for violence is more likely to undermine it than help it. By contrast, the far-right forces leading the current protests have little legitimacy among Venezuelans, so their only chance of exercising influence is to provoke or stage violence and promote economic chaos, hoping that the government will get blamed.

Some of the opposition protesters’ public claims might sound reasonable, and in fact reflect real problems in Venezuela: violent crime is a real issue, product shortages do exist, and inflation is a bit too high (if not the dire, hyperinflationary crisis that they imply). But these problems tend to be totally decontextualized in opposition rhetoric, which seeks to lay all the blame on the government when in fact the government probably deserves only a minor share of the blame for each. The government has at least tried to address violent crime by creating a new police force and by reducing poverty and inequality. High inflation and product shortages have more to do with the structural ills of an oil-dependent economy and the fact that so much of the non-oil economy remains in the hands of private businesses that are dead-set against the redistribution of wealth and power that Chavismo aims to achieve. The opposition argument that “Chavismo is wrecking the economy” is a recycled one, deployed against all socialist and left-leaning governments in modern Latin American history [3]. (Hoarding and efforts to blame shortages on the government almost succeeded in the April 2013 presidential election, likely narrowing Maduro’s margin of victory over Capriles. The latter’s public endorsement of certain Chavista social programs—a major shift of platform—probably also narrowed the gap.)

Furthermore, while problems like violent crime hurt working-class Venezuelans more than anyone else, there is no evidence to suggest that members of the poor and working classes or progressive social movement organizations have participated in the recent protests in any sizable numbers—despite the rather pathetic media attempts to depict the protests as broad-based, and opposition activists’ even more pathetic attempts to cast themselves as economically deprived. On the contrary, workers and the poor have been far more likely to participate in the series of large counter-protests in support of the government. Almost no progressives and leftists in Venezuela support the idea of overthrowing Maduro. Even parties and organizations to the left of the ruling PSUV party have mobilized in support of that party’s candidates in recent elections—probably serving as the decisive force in Maduro’s April 2013 victory—and I’ve seen no indication that their views have since changed.

 

Real Problems and Critical Support

The opposition protesters and the U.S. government hate Chavismo not for its vices but for its virtues. Nonetheless, there are some real vices—albeit not the ones the opposition alleges. As in most revolutions, there are conservative tendencies within the ruling party, including individualistic motives and a lack of real commitment to socialism by many party leaders as well as patriarchal, homophobic, and other oppressive attitudes. Even individual leaders who are in some ways radical can be full of contradictions. Most socialists have cringed every time they’ve heard Chávez or Maduro expressing moral support for leaders like Libya’s Gaddafi or Syria’s Assad. For people who care about the future of the planet, there has perhaps been insufficient emphasis placed on moving beyond oil (although Chávez did at least talk about the need to keep more oil in the ground). Within the state as a whole, bureaucratic and market logics have often slowed down the process of popular empowerment, for instance by inhibiting workers’ control in nationalized companies and impeding the growth of the communes (networks that link together individual communal councils) [4].

For leftists and solidarity activists, the challenge is to acknowledge such problems while avoiding the two dangerous extremes of 1) blind and uncritical support for the government and, on the opposite end, 2) overly dismissive and naïve condemnation of the Venezuelan process as a whole. The first category includes many Stalinists as well as others who fear that any critique whatsoever could unwittingly help the right. The second category, which has been especially apparent to me these last few weeks, includes “anarchists” who think that any protest against a state is inherently heroic, “Trotskyists” who decry any and all compromise with capitalism, “feminists” who dismiss the government because it hasn’t legalized abortion, and a variety of others who are perhaps legitimately upset with aspects of government policy but have issued drastic and unmeasured criticisms (I place the terms in quotations since there are more sophisticated variants of all these positions that do not make these same crude mistakes.) In one recent email list discussion, a prominent leftist author who has co-edited a new book on Latin American social movements characterized Chavismo as “a populist project that has effectively destroyed the country through its own irresponsibility” and urged other leftists to support the protests.

Many of these arguments are very sloppy with the facts, often accepting right-wing media accounts and discredited Human Rights Watch reports (which routinely vilify Chavismo and glorify opposition protesters) at face value. They tend to ignore the grassroots movements at the heart of Chavismo, neglect the massive social gains since 1999, and wrongly blame the government for current problems, when in fact it deserves only a small share of the blame. Most importantly, they reflect a dangerous disdain for what would be likely to happen in the event of a coup. To believe that, in the current context, the fall of the left-leaning Maduro government would lead to a deepening of popular power is to subscribe to the wildest of fantasies. For the left to join hands with the current opposition, even tacitly, would be a grievous error, with consequences that could quickly spiral out of the left’s control [5].

Most of the genuine popular forces in Venezuela have developed a nuanced conception of the process of change over the past 15 years. They will vehemently defend the government against threats from the domestic right and the U.S. government, but also critique it from a variety of progressive and revolutionary perspectives (feminist, environmentalist, socialist, anti-authoritarian, etc.). They realize that the revolution is far bigger than Chávez or Maduro, and that its success ultimately hinges on the continuous expansion of popular leadership, institutions, and revolutionary consciousness [6]. Foreign leftists would do well to listen to these voices.

 

Two Feminisms

For instance, consider Caracas-based Venezuelan feminist, activist, and educator Yanahir Reyes. Interviewed following Chávez’s death last year, Reyes praised “all of the social policy that was focused on liberating women,” saying that “Chávez benefitted women more than anyone else.” She pointed concretely to new laws that have valorized women’s household labor by entitling them to social security benefits, a 2007 law against domestic violence, and the extensive government “missions” that now offer health services, housing, education, job training, monetary aid, and other assistance to poor and working-class people and which disproportionately benefit women.

Despite her praise for Chávez, Reyes also emphasized the crucial importance of women’s own organizing efforts: “Women from the feminist struggle have effectively brought to light the importance of dismantling a patriarchal system,” pushing Chavismo in a more feminist direction. She offered some critiques of the government, but measured ones: “For women to feel protected, to feel recognized we have to keep fighting. It is a very hard internal fight, but always recognizing that this is the space where we can achieve it, not in a different form of government. In another form of government it would be impossible; it would not exist. That is why we defend the process with our lives” [7].

A very different feminist take on Chavismo was posted online this past week on several progressive U.S. websites. Despite purporting to offer a “nuanced, feminist” view of Venezuela (and indeed being more nuanced than some), the author denounced Maduro’s as “a government for whom feminism is not even a remote priority” and expressed support for the recent protests. The main evidence offered to demonstrate the Chávez and Maduro governments’ antipathy to feminism was that “abortion remains illegal” in Venezuela and that “there has been no major effort to legalize” it under the Chavistas.

The difference in these two feminist views is between a revolutionary conception of feminism—one that understands that genuine women’s liberation is not possible without socialism—and a watered-down conception of feminism that emphasizes abortion rights as the primary indicator of women’s status in society. The second view, if justifiably angry about the lack of legal abortion rights in Venezuela, represents a much narrower vision of feminism that fails to understand the multi-faceted oppression of poor and working-class women (and also probably underestimates the cultural and political obstacles to legalization in a society like Venezuela’s). Many revolutionary feminists in Venezuela advocate for abortion rights but also realize that “women’s rights” are much broader. As Yanahir Reyes implicitly argues, the more “traditional” feminist issue of access to abortion cannot be divorced from the full scope of economic, social, political, and cultural rights to which all women should be entitled. By supporting the current protests, the second view also ignores Reyes’s point about the prospects for full liberation: “In another form of government it would be impossible[8].

 

Chavismo’s Trajectory: Backlash, Forward-Lash, and Incremental Radicalization

Yanahir Reyes’ comments capture a central dynamic at the heart of Venezuela under Chavismo: the complex negotiation of power between social movement voices at the grassroots and a ruling party that is generally committed to progressive changes but which contains within it many contradictions. This dynamic is in turn closely related to another: the virulent hostility shown toward the Chavista camp by affluent sectors accustomed to power and privilege, who continue to possess a formidable capacity to disrupt the economy (since they still own so much of it) and to shape media discussions of Chavismo in Venezuela and abroad. Faced with an ongoing elite backlash, Chávez gradually moved to the left, seeking to expand popular power and support in order to counter threats from the right. The Chávez who died in 2013 was, in effect, considerably more radical than the Chávez who took office in 1999. The combination of elite backlash and pressures from below resulted in a sort of “forward-lash,” apparent in the government’s incremental steps to the left since 1999 and especially since around 2006. The Venezuelan government has moved slowly but steadily to the left—nationalizing more companies and industries, strengthening social programs, expanding and promoting the communal councils as organs of popular power, and promoting discussion of socialism and what it should look like [9].

For instance, the wave of government expropriations of large and medium-sized companies that began in 2007 has been largely a response to private-sector hostility, including capital flight and production cuts and hoarding meant to drive up prices. When government price controls failed to resolve these problems, Chávez began expropriating companies in a variety of industries including steel, electricity, petrochemicals, telecommunications, glass, and food and agriculture. These expropriations have simultaneously sought to undermine the elite’s ability to wield economic (and thereby political) power and to consolidate popular support for Chavismo. Even so, Venezuela still has a huge private sector, and large private companies still have majority market control in many industries, including food. Many grassroots sectors thus want the government to go farther and faster. Last week the major labor federation, the UNT, demanded the nationalization of the auto industry, citing production cutbacks by Toyota, Ford, General Motors, and others.

Many voices to the government’s left also warn that fostering deeper, more genuine popular control over economic, social, and governance institutions is imperative if sustainable transformation is to be achieved. The government’s emphasis on building communal councils starting in 2006, and on the construction of the larger commune networks since 2009, is partly a reflection of this realization, and is another illustration of the government’s gradual radicalization. In this case the radicalization has been directed at empowering workers located mainly outside the formal sector (most of the Venezuelan population). By 2013 there were roughly 44,000 communal councils in the country and over 200 communes being developed. This process has been driven largely from below, but Chávez and other officials have also played a role in facilitating it [10].

The government (or at least much of the high-level PSUV leadership) has slowly come to the realization that it is dependent on popular support, that only by deepening popular power can it counter threats from the right. Unfortunately there are a lot more contradictions and complexities in that process of realization and implementation than we might like. The leftward trajectory of Chavismo has been non-linear and slower than radicals might prefer. But it is nonetheless real. Writing soon after Maduro’s April 2014 election, analyst Steve Ellner insightfully argued that the government strategy has resembled the concept of “permanent revolution,” but of a gradual, step-by-step nature. While “many Trotskyists have applied the idea dogmatically, ruling out any compromise whatsoever and basically striking out simultaneously in all directions,” the Chávez administration “aimed at individual targets,” one-at-a-time. “All would indicate that this strategy has been assimilated by Maduro and other Chavista leaders,” Ellner commented [11].

I hope so. So far the Maduro administration’s record in this regard has been mixed, and there will continue to be dangers of derailment, betrayal, and backsliding at every turn. But regardless of what Chavista leaders do, Venezuelan grassroots activists like Yanahir Reyes seem to know what they must do. So should we.

 

Notes

 [1] See Dario Azzellini, “The Communal State: Communal Councils, Communes, and Workplace Democracy,” NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 2 (2013): 25-30; Alejandro Velasco, “Communes in Progress: An Interview with Atenea Jiménez,” NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 2 (2013): 31-34.

 [2] Legal considerations may also play a role, if media outlets do not want to risk legal reprisals for openly supporting unconstitutional overthrow of a democratic government. Thus, government “intimidation” may be a factor, but it is questionable whether a state prohibition on media advocating a coup (or facilitating one by publishing deliberately distorted videos and photos) can properly be considered “intimidation.”

 [3] See my “Discrediting Alternatives to Neoliberalism,” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 5 (2010): 45-48. It is true that some of the government’s policies for addressing immediate economic problems have fallen short, but the failures are largely a reflection of the structural constraints mentioned plus the fact that Venezuela is surrounded by capitalist countries that do not subsidize basic goods or impose price controls like it does, thus creating incentives to take goods out of the country for sale. For instance, price and exchange controls have proven inadequate in part because big business owners and ordinary people alike have been given an incentive to take cheap/subsidized goods out of the country, sell them for dollars, and then return and exchange the dollars for national currency—thus exacerbating shortages.

 [4] See Azzellini, “The Communal State”; Velasco, “Communes in Progress”; Sujatha Fernandes, Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). This list of problems is illustrative, not comprehensive.

 [5] The July 2013 military coup in Egypt is a partial but instructive parallel here: Morsi’s was a rather repressive and oligarchy-friendly government, and many international (and some Egyptian) leftists supported his overthrow because they thought it would pave the way for more democracy; the coup was also preceded (unlike in current Venezuela) by truly massive street protests that included many progressive people. Clearly the expectation of greater democracy following the military takeover was misguided, however, as the past seven months have shown. This cautionary parallel is even more relevant because there is a vast difference between a Morsi and a Chávez—the latter not only behaved more democratically but also repudiated neoliberalism, declared socialism to be the ultimate goal, and, contradictions notwithstanding, provided substantial space for grassroots empowerment and leadership development.

 [6] See for instance Carlos Martínez, Michael Fox, and JoJo Farrell, eds., Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010); George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); Fernandes, Who Can Stop the Drums?

 [7] Michael Fox, “Women and Chavismo: An Interview with Yanahir Reyes,” trans. Pablo Morales, NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 2 (2013): 35-39. Reyes’ perspective is not unique among working-class and revolutionary feminists (though it should be noted that many Venezuelan “feminists” avoid self-identifying as such in part because of what they perceive as the bourgeois or middle-class-centric connotations of the term, given its historic usage by relatively privileged women). See Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez, 126-45.

 [8] The author also cites a homophobic comment by Nicolás Maduro from last year to support the characterization of the regime as heterosexist. Again, however, this blanket dismissal contrasts with the position of many revolutionary queer activists in Venezuela, who have recently mobilized in support of the government.

 [9] On these dynamics see especially Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez; Fernandes, Who Can Stop the Drums?; and the following works by Steve Ellner: “Social and Political Diversity and the Democratic Road to Change in Venezuela,” in Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Ellner (forthcoming, March 2014); “Just How Radical Is President Nicolás Maduro?” NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 2 (2013): 45-49; “Venezuela’s Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations,” Journal of Latin American Studies 43 (2011): 421-449.

 [10] Azzellini, “The Communal State,” 26-27.

 [11] “Just How Radical Is President Nicolás Maduro?” 49.

 

2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Joe Emersberger February 28, 2014 1:39 pm 

    Very nice piece, Kevin

    • avatar
      Kevin Young February 28, 2014 3:49 pm 

      Thanks Joe, and thanks for all your recent work!

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