Whispering Venezuela?

My title, I grant, is odd, but then so is my subject.

Many sincere and committed anti authoritarian leftists have been largely silent (or even critically dismissive) for quite a long time about Venezuela. Even during attempts to overthrow the entire Bolivarian process there is much silence. Why are so many leftists so reticent about Venezuela?

In answer, I have heard that “Generalities won’t clarify, and beyond generalities, I know nothing to say.” I have also heard, “the trends are results of Bolivarian flaws. Since I have nothing positive to say, I think it is wise I say nothing at all.”

Why do many otherwise incredibly well informed leftists know nothing beyond generalities about Venezuela? Why do many anti authoritarian activists have nothing supportive to say?

I believe the subtext of both these and many other standoffish or dismissive reactions to Venezuela is alienation from and sharp but often ill informed or misinformed criticism of Venezuelan events. What befuddles me, especially now, is why this condition exists at all, and, given that it does exist, why it leads to silence, or to whispering.

To my eyes, Venezuela has sought a libertarian, non violent, and even participatory path more so then any other large scale project in the world. I would think that would merit major attention, assessment, lesson learning, and support, and certainly not silence much less hostility.

Neighborhoods organized, albeit with great difficulty, into councils, and councils into larger communes. Isn’t this what an anti authoritarian, non violent, participation-advocating left wants?

Grass roots missions to solve social problems? Expanded education and health care? Democracy defended and plebiscites repeatedly taken and enacted? Do these and many other positive trends mean the Bolivarian project is flawless? Of course not. Do they mean that concern and criticism are unwarranted? Of course not. Do they mean the Bolivarian effort will succeed without doubt? Of course not. But the alternative to being a mindless sycophantic booster need not and should not be being silent or derogatory.

And in any case, why should Venezuela’s project being less than perfect deter people from feeling outrage at the right wing and corporate opposition in Venezuela and at U.S. machinations seeking Venezuela’s collapse? Why should the Venezuelan project being less than perfect prevent support for the best of Venezuela’s efforts as well as constructive criticism of whatever one finds wanting?

I think no serious progressive person would say the Venezuelan project being less perfect than some abstract textbook conception ought to terminate our support for it. Ought to silence our voices for it. Yet Venezuela being less than abstractly perfect often has had just that effect. Or so it seems to me.

It behooves us, I think, to ask why.

I can abstract away from specific people and offer some possible answers, but I have no idea if my answers actually apply. To decide, people who have a hands off or aggressively dismissive mindset will have to interrogate their own motives.

Is it that some folks believe the flaws of the Bolivarian process are so damning that however well motivated it may be it is going to fail, intrinsically, and since it is going to fail, they don’t support it? This too, seems unlikely. After all, the probability of failure is only enhanced by lack of critical and wise support. If people fear failure, why wouldn’t they work to avert that outcome, even if they feel averting it will be very hard? Isn’t the duty of the revolutionary to make the revolution — and to defend efforts in that direction? Surely it is not, instead, to support only sure things.

Unlike the above two unlikely possibilities, is it that some whisperers and dismissers feel, “wait just a minute, Venezuela doesn’t match my understanding of revolution, or even of a project moving positively. Venezuela is instead, to my eyes, just another statist, authoritarian, aberration.” Thinking this, such a person will understandably decide not to support Venezuela, though perhaps also not to criticize at a time when doing so would fuel violent right wing agendas. But, I have to wonder, is thinking this due to first hand knowledge? Is thinking this due to extensive examination? Do non supporters have convincing data? Do they have something actual to point at?

What policies and commitments of Venezuela give them an impression that the endeavor isn’t in a positive direction or, worse, the impression that it is contrary to positive aims? It can’t be the councils, communes, or grassroots missions, so what is it?

When the anti Leninist left is dismissive, I wonder if it occurs by way of a kind of analogy to past history. Anti Leninists know that once upon a time, many very wonderful leftists lent their support to the Bolshevik project. The Russian revolution was under attack, after all. But even at those moments, its destiny was written in its own policies. The Leninists crushed vehicles of popular expression. They established the infrastructure of what became a gulag state. Supporters not seeing that reality, then, blinded by their hopes, were making a severe error. I suspect non supporters of Venezuela fear making the same mistake. They don’t want to let hope  that the Bolivarian process is good outweigh purported evidence that it is bad. So they refrain from supporting Venezuela believing that by withholding support they are like the prescient early critics of Leninism, and, then, additionally, by being silent rather than pubnlic, they aren’t ratifying reaction. But what is their purported evidence?

This is where a conundrum arises. For I just don’t see what gives this analogy weight. For example, can any whisperers or dismissers who believes they are wisely refraining from supporting authoritarian centralism point to new Bolivarian laws that are reactionary and repressive, other than regurgitating manufactured nonsense from mainstream propaganda? Can they point to structures being constructed in Venezuela that are reactionary, or to structures that are participatory and being crushed? Can they point to Bolivarian concepts or values that themselves auger authority and repression? What am I missing? I certainly see problems, but nothing that remotely warrants dismissal.

For example, one can point to corruption. But it certainly isn’t being ignored by the Bolivarian process much less becoming policy. One can point to over reliance on oil — though just exactly how those pointing to oil dependence would have significantly reduced that dependence is quite unclear. One can even make a case that Venezuela’s transformation has been too slow, too respectful of old laws and property relations, and too hesitant to alter media relations, but that would be the opposite of what those who refrain from supporting the Venezuelan project seem to fear. Do people realize that if they believe any of this is a compelling reason for them to not support Venezuela, to be consistent they would then never be able to support any effort to transform any society because in the muddy and muddled world we inhabit, any such effort will include errors by activists and also elements of corruption. Habits from the past can’t be dispensed easily. But shouldn’t the response to such problems be to provide assistance and when quite confident of a critical assessment, also cautious commentary that might help correct serious errors, if those errors do indeed exist?

I have written quite a lot about Venezuela during its Bolivarian experience. This has included raising numerous questions and criticisms, as well as offering reports of admirable undertakings to try to clarify and learn from them, and even offering some suggestions. But none of what I have seen or heard about Venezuela seems to me to remotely justify being silent about U.S. machinations or about those of Venezuela’s reactionary opposition, or, for that matter, about errors or wrong headed or incomplete views of its Bolivarian leadership.

Toward Venezuela, now is a time for aid, support, listening, learning, and, when quite confident, also providing humble and hopefully helpful advice for overcoming problems.

It is not the place of revolutionaries to watch world historic endeavors from the sidelines, either castigating aggressively or whispering unobtrusively due to thinking those endeavors aren’t perfect, include errors, don’t yet evidence complete and absolute freedom. Yes, someone looking on from the side, that way may, when the dust clears, in the socially worst case, be able to intone over the grave of the effort they rejected, “see, I told you so…I got it right. They failed.” What a sad kind of self affirmation that would be. And I have to wonder, in a vastly more preferable scenario wherein the rejected project persists and proceeds, will those same critics say, down the road, “I was horribly wrong,” or will they forget that they ever refused to lend a hand?


  1. avatar
    Joe Emersberger February 17, 2015 10:58 pm 

    North america Left is hobbled my anarchist ideology and (I agree Rufus) a defeatist mentality – like a sports team that loses because it is accustomed to losing and has grown comfortable with it.

    Why did the indignados movement in Spain evolve into Podemos – which is seriously threatening to take political power as Syriza did in Greece – while the Occupy movement in the USA fizzled?

    Note that both Podemos and Syriza VERY supportive of Chavismo.

    • avatar
      Joe Emersberger February 17, 2015 11:01 pm 

      “hobbled BY” I meant to write

  2. David Dobereiner February 17, 2015 9:32 pm 

    I agree that the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela presents the most inspiring development that is happening anywhere in the world today. As such I wholeheartedly support it and try to persuade my associates that they should too.
    The problem i have is the thing you mention: oil dependence. I do not think that social change, however radical and successful can ignore the context of the climate crisis and the scientific consensus that 80% of the global reserves of oil must be left in the ground permanently by 2030 at the latest. Who does Venezuela sell their oil to? I don’t know. What would happen if they restricted exports of it to the BRICS, but only on the understanding that the sales would be successively REDUCED year by year until it was zero by 2030? This could be done, but only in the context of a 15 year national plan to develop other alternative energy sources and income sources. This should be part of the revolution. All revolutions.

    • Rufus Polson February 18, 2015 5:23 pm 

      The oil thing is a problem, for sure. It’s a serious contradiction (so is the natural gas in Bolivia). But it’s hard to tell them “don’t do it” when the problem is that they are, in fact, pretty dependent on it. The question is how to make a transition to a more diversified, less rent-oriented (and at the same time of course much more social) economy, so they won’t be dependent on it any more. This is a tough question, and one which I do think they’re wrestling with in between fighting oligarchs, struggling with the regressive tendencies of some of the powerful people within the PSUV and the government bureaucracy, etc etc.

      The problem that worries me is in some ways smaller but I think fundamental: They’ve talked about worker management, but every time it looks like some workers are gonna be managing a major place, like a nationalized steel plant or something, they have been successfully sandbagged by elements in the government and it hasn’t happened or hasn’t stuck. If they don’t reverse that sometime soon, how the hell are they supposed to move towards a more social/ist economy? Where the wheels hit the rails is the people controlling their work; you can have all the social programs but if that element isn’t in place it’s just a capitalist welfare state. And tactically, it means you’re letting the oligarchs keep the leverage of being co-ordinators, which they can use (and in Venezuela already have used) against the revolution; bad idea.

      • avatar
        Joe Emersberger February 18, 2015 6:23 pm 

        The entire world is dependent on fossil fuels. But as Naomi Klein pointed out, about 500 million people, about 7% of the world’s population, produce 50% of the CO2 emissions. Countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba (especially Cuba) are doing far more than their share to offer an alternative to the economic system that is cooking the planet. The solution to a global problem requires that movements in rich countries like the USA and Canada need to starting contributing much more than they do at present.

        Global warming aside (imagine for a moment it didn’t exist) dependency on one exported product oil or anything else – is certainly a problem, a weakness. Raising living standards alone does not necessarily raise the level of economic democracy. However, it certainly increases the potential of workers becoming more directly empowered as living standards and educational standards rise. The neoliberal backlash against an elite perceived “excess of democracy” in rich countries (to use the Trilateral Commission quote Chomsky often cites) came after a few decades of excellent economic growth.

        The challenge for Venezuela (and any other country that seeks a real alternative to capitalism) is to produce both growth and, at at the same time, an increase in democratic expectations among people.

        I’d say Venezuela has, over the past 4 years, faltered mainly in the former goal – economic growth – with flawed policies at the macro level. It has been too stingy with social spending and stubborn about maintaining an ineffective exchange rate system. I’d say its been unusually committed to raising democratic expectations. If it can correct some macroeconomic polices i think it could return to making excellent progress on all fronts. .

  3. avatar
    Michael Lesher February 17, 2015 8:13 pm 

    I admit to being unpardonably ignorant about Venezuela. (Most of what I really know has come from ZNet and a couple of other places.) But it seems clear that what Venezuela is attempting is possibly the most important, or at least the most hopeful, development in the world today. Any remaining doubts on that score should have been put to rest by the intensity and the scale of covert attempts to undermine it.

    What should we do? That will depend a great deal, obviously, on what each of us has to offer. One thing we should NOT do is just wait and let the CIA, the State Department and the mass media write the script for what’s going to happen next. After all, we already know how that story ends. Whatever we do, we ought to be able to work for a happier ending — and it seems to me Venezuela is offering us some real material to work with.

  4. avatar
    Mark Evans February 17, 2015 7:29 pm 

    In my experience you definitely get knee-jerk responses to issues relating to things like Venezuela where the anarchist types tend to refuse to support that particular struggle on the grounds that it is top-down or something. And you get the Marxist types doing the same thing in the other direction. Not all the time but often.
    What they seem to be doing is taking a very principles stance with regards to strategy whilst ignoring the vision. This, I think, is exactly the wrong attitude to take regarding revolutionary organising. We should be very open and pragmatic about strategy and very principled and idealistic about vision.
    The question is, can the top-downers and bottom-upers agree on vision? The problem is, they both tend to neglect vision so we cannot really answer this question.

  5. Rufus Polson February 17, 2015 5:55 pm 

    I sometimes wonder if it’s less about substance than style. That is, I feel like a lot of leftists just didn’t like Hugo Chavez. He was big and brash and swaggering, a confident, macho-seeming, exuberant, room-filling guy who came from a military background and acted like he was always going to win (and then always did). I think a lot of North American leftists are more, you know, sensitive and soft-spoken and anti-military.

    And the North American leftist culture has, to be frank, gotten rather used to defeat. They’ve had to learn to keep going even when they know they’re gonna lose, which I think has some virtues but some problems: You get people with a certain dogged determination who will keep on struggling no matter what–but they’re used to the idea that it’s about the struggle, about bearing witness and being seen to oppose, keeping the candle flame alive. Not about actually winning anything. So then here comes this big brash larger-than-life guy waltzing onto the stage cheerfully calling Bush the devil and they’re like, who does this guy think he is? Does he think this is some kind of game? How can he be just beating the bad guys and laughing about it–that doesn’t happen! A big brash winner who’s actually in power doesn’t look like a leftist to them, he looks like the opposition, no matter the substance of what’s going on.

    It certainly seems as if, whatever North American and other Anglosphere leftists might think, people elsewhere, in places with somewhat different leftist cultures and traditions, are drawing inspiration from the Bolivarian example. I get the definite impression that Syriza and Podemos are very much aware of and positive about the Venezuelan “Proceso”, and of course I think Venezuela has had and continues to have a considerable impact across Latin America.

    It may not matter. This is a mournful speculation which I hope doesn’t turn out to be true, but it may be that the North American left is actually the least important progressive movement in the world–that as US primacy erodes, the left everywhere else will enjoy a resurgence and gradually curtail US influence, and the North American left will only grow and pick up the pieces after the US imperial project has definitively imploded and the left has triumphed in much of the rest of the world.

  6. avatar
    David Jones February 17, 2015 4:02 pm 

    I’m curious as to why you won’t cite specific cases of this “whispering”? Or which members of the revolutionary anti-Leninist left you feel should speak louder. Also, do you believe a mobilized left here in the heart of the beast could have some effect on the outcome of their struggle? How might pressure be applied? What humble advice would you offer regarding capital flight or currency stabilization? What advice could you offer regarding oil sector development or eliminating nepotism and corruption in the bureaucracy?

    • Joe Marcin February 18, 2015 1:40 pm 

      Venezuela has taken action on currency stabilization and will do what you can on capital flight. Advise to Oil Sector; same advise you would give to the other fossil fuel nations; Get out of it! As quickly as possible? There are alternatives, however the “70” Trillion $ in reserves makes it difficult for them to consider.

      We are watching the 2nd coup attempt on the Bolivian Government, with US weapons, planes that are owned by Blackwater and funding through the National Endowment for Democracy to the opposition.

      In 2013 Venezuela tied Finland for the 5th
      happiest place to live in the world. Don’t you think that is worth saving?

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