By Pedro Lange-Churion, guest contributor
May 28, 2016
Venezuela is nearing collapse, turning more violent by the second.
Last week President 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 the 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 Maduro from power. And Maduro is looking for ways to delay this process.
An article in Counterpunch by Eric Draitser, characterizes 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 situation, already a humanitarian crisis, is the product of a plot between the Venezuelan right-wing elites that control the National Assembly and 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 Draister 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) comes from a landslide electoral victory in December 2015. The article identifies the opposition with the right-wing elite, when in reality the opposition is a coalition of parties and individuals that also includes 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. The article also conveniently omits Maduro’s coup to the National Assembly. On December 30, 2015 he tempestuously appointed twelve Supreme Court Justices, all Chavistas, 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 to the National Assembly.
The left acts as if all “leftist” governments must be unconditionally defended, no matter how authoritarian and corrupt 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 the current Venezuelan nightmare and when it has, it has done so timidly. 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 with Pablo Iglesias from Podemos or Alexis Tsipras from Syiriza. But Zizek is reluctant to use his critical acumen to shed light on how the current Venezuelan crisis is the result of policies enacted by these authoritarian caudillos.
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 Latin American left, then, 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 policies in Argentina poised to undo 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 and condemning an authoritarian nightmare, disguised under a leftist rhetoric, means condemning all leftist initiatives. At this point, a good dosage of self-criticism would be positive and 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, and it should therefore be held accountable. 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 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 on the left is to blame Venezuela’s dismal situation on American interventionism. To be sure, the U.S. did play a role in all of this. There was the attempted coup in 2002 led by a misguided opposition, with the support of the Bush administration and Aznar’s government in Spain; it didn’t last more than two days in power. But even then 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.
The U.S. focus has since shifted 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. Although in March 2015 Obama declared Venezuela a national security threat, providing the U.S. 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. The U.S. selective justice notwithstanding, the truth is that the U.S has been relatively indifferent to Venezuela’s maladies since 2002 and Obama’s declaration has little impact in Venezuela’s internal affairs. This position is not, of course, motivated by a genuine respect for the country’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 production. Ironically, beyond the anti-imperialist rhetoric, the U.S. is and has been Venezuela’s first commercial partner throughout the Chavista experience, a completely different a situation from that of Cuba, besieged by an aggressive economic embargo.
The business elites in Venezuela have been emasculated; many have left the country as their industries have been expropriated by the government. Since 2002 all branches of government have been impermeable to the influence of the U.S. and opposition, since they have been overwhelmingly made up of Chavistas.
American intervention since 2002 has had little traction in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Therefore, the debacle of the country, its social decomposition, the emergence of Venezuela as a main port in drug trafficking, the demise of its middle class, the collapse of its economy, its scarcity of goods, its corruption, 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, that Venezuela has experienced civil unrest in the past, like “El caracazo” in February 1989. True. But never has Venezuela experienced a crisis of such proportions, never has the country been in such a generalized humanitarian crisis, 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 created internally and, therefore, there are people in power who should be held accountable.
Chavismo had a chance to do things differently, in ways which could have averted this current crisis. Save the hiccup of 2002, Chavismo has been in power for seventeen uninterrupted years, holding the reins of all branches of civic and military power. Chavismo has also enjoyed unprecedented oil revenues 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. The acts of corruption perpetrated by private officials and the military equals’ macro-economic cyphers: $300 billion 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 opposition, but by Chavistas themselves, who have been with the “revolution” from its beginnings and who have played key roles in Chavez’ government. 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 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 rising drug lords inside and outside of government. Wary of perceived traitors to the revolution, Chávez reshuffled his increasingly smaller circle of aides to key posts in the government. Maduro followed his mentor. Anyone critical of his policies was expelled from his court; some were even imprisoned. Venezuelans remember General Raúl Isaías Baduel, Chávez’s 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 house and thrown in jail.
The case of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni 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. Afiuni 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 sick with cancer and after emergency surgery was confined by 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 why all areas of the Venezuelan government and Venezuelan society are in chaos.
To say that these maladies are caused by American interventionism and by oil wars in the international market, robs Venezuelans of agency and absolves them of the responsibility to reckon with their mistakes and the way they shaped the country’s current history. There are many oil rich countries in the world affected by the dip in oil prices orchestrated by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, but not one of these countries is going through the crisis that afflicts Venezuela these days. To reduce Venezuela’s situation to American interventionism ignores how the lived experience of most Venezuelans, affected by populist, impulsive and deeply narcissistic leaders like Chávez and Maduro, has become abysmal. These assertions ignore (or want to ignore) that Chávez expropriated close to seven thousand productive industries now in ruins, forcing the country to import with less money many of the goods it previously produced. These assertions ignore that Chavismo ruined PDVSA, Venezuela’s oil company, by appointing inept and corrupt managers that have used the company as a platform to launder cash; PDVSA’s productive capacity has diminished so drastically that the country with the largest proven reserves of oil in the world has to import oil to meet its demands; these assertions ignore that Chávez disregarded repeated warnings from his own economists urging him to curb spending, not to cap products with a price at the expense of the few producers still remaining in the country who were reluctant to produce at a loss, to which he arrogantly replied that oil would reach the $200/barrel mark by 2015. It is merely $38 per barrel now and production costs almost exceed revenues; these 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.
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. These assertions ignore that Venezuela has the most catastrophic economy in the world with a 700% inflation rate projected to reach 1200% as the country enters default in the third quarter of 2016. These assertions ignore the fact 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 800 kg of cocaine into the U.S., a cargo of cocaine that left Venezuela on a airplane 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 jumped to the opportunity. Right-wing politicians love to use Venezuela in their electoral campaigns or in their attempts to impeach leftist leaders, as a convenient example of what countries need to avoid. 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 Day in Oakland. I met an old white American donning a cowboy hat and a t-shirt with a portrait of a radiant Chavez in the middle of the t-shirt and 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 am Venezuelan and he mumbled with his 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 of Chavez’ performance in 2006 at the United Nations where Chávez mockingly compared Bush to the devil. To me that was one more display of demagoguery from a man 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 casts a veil over the fact that Venezuela’s current ruination is in large measure the consequence of his policies and his political solipsism. Sympathizers all over the world still try to redeem him and exonerate him from responsibility.
“Maduro is not Chávez” I tire of hearing. And it is true, Maduro is not Chávez; he lacks Chávez’ charisma and political capital. But Maduro, in a more substantial way, is Chávez. Maduro has been in power for three years and what we reap right now in Venezuela was sown by Chávez’ policies during his fourteen years in power. Chávez was just lucky and died at the right moment. We shouldn’t forget that Chávez ran an election aware he was going to die – lying to Venezuelans about his health condition – and just before he left for Cuba as newly elected President, he pleaded with supporters to elect Nicolás Maduro in case he didn’t come back. And there you have it: Maduro is Chávez’s most tangible legacy as everything dissolves into violence and ruination.
In the famous opening of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Marx quotes Hegel’s affirmation, according to which historical events are first tragedy and then farce. I believe, in the carnival-esque logic of Venezuelan politics, the chapter written by Chavismo is simultaneously tragedy and farce.
Pedro Lange Churión is a professor at the University of San Francisco, California, where he teaches comparative literature, film and urban studies, with an emphasis on critical theory.