No Middle Road on Venezuela: Recommendations for the U.S. Left
For those of us inspired by mass mobilizations in Egypt's Tahrir Square, Turkey's Gezi Park, Greece's Syntagma Square, Spain's Plaza del Sol, and even our "own" Zuccotti Park, it is easy for protests in Venezuela to evoke the same emotions.
But this would be a mistake: there is no equivalence between those seeking social transformation and economic justice on the one hand and those wishing to deepen their integration into a fundamentally unjust and unsound global economic system.
The well-crafted images that the mass media serves up may nonetheless tempt the well-meaning among our number toward just such an equivocation. Against this outcome, this briefing suggests that (1) the U.S. is not interested in a democratic outcome in Venezuela, (2) media and right-wing politics (in both the U.S. and Venezuela) require a radically more effective left, (3) the U.S. left must go beyond defending sovereignty and election-outcomes in Venezuela and be more explicit about our social class commitments, (4) system change in Venezuela and elsewhere tests our narrative frameworks.
In form, this note follows many English-language pieces on Venezuela in that it is primarily interpretative and decidedly prescriptive--aiming to understand the U.S. left's challenges in responding to Venezuela--and not revelatory--providing new information. It also departs from many other progressive accounts because it frames the many legitimate grievances surfaced in the media--violent crime, rampant corruption, escalating inflation, economic shortages--as inherent, even necessary, evils en route to a more democratic and sustainable society. For those who share this writer’s wariness of the state, these dilemmas make for tough choices about the state. It should be added that the debates we have today over Venezuela, more than 15 years into its revolutionary transformation, are predictive of ones that we will repeat in other contexts, including, hopefully, our own.
1. Liberal democracies, even “polyarchies”, are not on the U.S. & global ruling-class agenda
In the popular imagination, the post-World War Two political evolution of Germany, Japan and much of Western Europe and even Southern Europe remains the template for U.S. overseas projects. In this narrative, the U.S. government, U.S.-based corporations, and U.S.-influenced international institutions all supported democratization and the emergence of relatively stable political systems. Exceptions, in this view were made for the Third World whose peoples were variously portrayed as not ready or not capable of democracy. Evidence to the contrary and domestic social movements for democracy were largely disappeared.
Even many left-wing analysts by the 1980s came to see the resulting liberal democracies in
the Western world as almost permanent fixtures in our historical development. A general thesis emerged that democracy was possible and even stable in capitalist societies because there is an implicit social contract: capitalists accepted the limited uncertainty of elections (which may go against their preferred choices) and workers consented to (their own) economic exploitation in the expectation of increasing living standards.
Elsewhere, support for anti-democratic coups in Asia, Africa, Southern Europe, and Latin America, was framed as a temporary expedient in the context of defending against the communist threat. Similarly, the re-emergence of democratization in the late 70s, with the so-called Third Wave, was tolerated insofar as it did not threaten existing property relations. Democracy in the State Department rhetoric was reduced to elections and even then to ever more narrowly-defined rules and procedures. Today however the rotation of elites—typical of polyarchies—is no longer supported. One defining instance today is Thailand, long the platform for U.S. adventures in Southeast Asia, where (pro-U.S.) monarchist forces reject election results and repeatedly refuse to allow an elected government to hold office < http://alj.am/1h7t9A6 >.
The hoped-for Fourth Wave of democratization signaled by the Arab Spring of 2011 threatened broader changes, challenging both ruling-class property and long-standing international alliances, driven as its early movements were from below. Later, however, it was hijacked from abroad and by domestic elites. Grassroots movements in Libya and Syria were supplanted by foreign-armed military enterprises and even fundamentalist groups. By now the Egyptian situation is well-known – a Napoleon-style military ruler is steadily tracing his path to the presidency having successfully removed an elected president following a wave of popular protest.
Despite the “idealism” of the Bush-era neo-conservative moment and its claims for democratizing the Middle East, democracy as a goal of U.S. policy was largely eschewed in favor of increasingly narrow definitions of human rights by the time of the Obama administration; it describes its foreign policy in largely realist terms.** A patina of idealism remains in the occasional State Department complaint about the treatment of this or that oppressed group (women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, gays in Uganda and Zimbabwe, workers in China and Venezuela) depending on how this plays domestically and in favor of other U.S. priorities). If there were any illusions about the Obama commitment to democracy, his first major foreign policy test, the unconstitutional deposing of an elected Honduran president in 2009, gave lie to them.
Ominously, the domestic commitment to democracy is now circumscribed by a range of practices to narrow the franchise, increase the influence of money, move decision making into private or semi-public bodies, restrict public protests, and expand mass surveillance. Equally important, the largely bi-partisan austerity agenda of both major U.S. parties and the European governing establishment, indicate an unwillingness and perhaps an incapacity to deliver the ever-increasing living standards that theorists once postulated as necessary for stable democracies.
In the mid-2000s, especially with the publication of Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop, another important dimension to the U.S.’s Latin America policy surfaced: the left came to recognize that policies supporting the right abroad, also strengthened the right at home. For example, in the 1980s to shape U.S. public opinion on intervention in Central America (heavily influenced by the defeat in Vietnam), the Reagan administration launched the Office of Public Diplomacy. This in turn helped fund the domestic Christian Right. Interestingly too, U.S. Latin America policy is increasingly shaped by the emergence of a new generation of right-wing U.S. citizens of Latin American ancestry (most notoriously, perhaps, the Cuban-American, Otto Reich). The U.S. left has yet to establish a comparably influential milieu despite the obvious opportunity with the mass migration of working people from Latin America to the United States. New immigrant-based formations may yet play an analogous and countervailing role (to the right’s) from a grassroots perspective.
In the absence of a left influence on foreign policy, the U.S. government and allied administrations around the globe provided upwards of $100 million dollars to support the Venezuelan opposition and provided training to opposition groups and sympathetic student organizations.*** Although most Americans agree with the statement that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” (only 38% disagree < http://bit.ly/1c5HqQi >), the dominant media treats the intervention as uncontroversial and even beneficial to U.S. values (see Mark Weisbrot on this topic, < http://huff.to/1c5I53W >). It is against this background that the left needs to consider its capacity to respond to protests in Venezuela. More than a technical conversation about media ownership and class bias, it will be argued that there is a new, national and even “ethnic” dimension to the left’s weakness in responding on the media front.
2. The U.S. left needs to radically up its game when it comes to the media
It is now common place to assert that the U.S. left is weakened by the relative absence of a significant left-wing media establishment. However, in its action planning and investment of admittedly modest resources, the left has failed to prioritize the strengthening of its presence in the media. The recent Venezuelan protests have demonstrated the ability of the right to construct a powerful narrative about the events and to polarize the global conversation. In particular, every action and counteraction is framed within this narrative. As a result, left-wing attention to facts and details is simply misplaced. For example, when Venezuelan opposition figures advocate tactics causing the beheading (!) of motorcyclists, the U.S. media treat them as legitimate actors on the national political stage instead of say their Middle Eastern or Pakistani counterparts who employ similar tactics.
The case of former General Angel Vivas is instructive. The U.S. media treats him as a folk hero who rejects the Bolivarian military and Cuban influence. Adding to his celebrity was the sudden inflation of his Twitter account to a quarter million followers. The Wall Street Journal (2/27/2014) celebrated the general with the headline, “Venezuelan Unrest Creates a New Folk Hero” < http://on.wsj.com/1f2gxrd >. It then carefully frames Angel Vivas’s lethal tutelage, “he offered practical advice on how to defend against attacks, particularly by gangs of pro-government thugs on motorcycles that were blamed for the shooting deaths of several protesters. The general recommended stringing up nylon or wire across streets to prevent riders from crossing.” Practical advice, indeed! The government’s attempt to arrest Vivas was then treated as another example of the revolution’s suppression of free speech.
We can only imagine the Journal’s response to similarly thuggish and lethal advice had it issued from say the #Occupy movement. Unfortunately, having effectively established its narrative, the establishment is free to use one standard for the government and another for the opposition. Even a cursory examination of mainstream framing of the events in Venezuela, reveals the key role played by extremists ensconced in the Journal in defining the narrative, at the outset of the current protests, before significant Venezuelan state responses and most U.S. media attention. Before Vivas’s 15 minutes of U.S. fame, Mary O’Grady, a Journal editor, was dictating the line via her weekly column. Her framing of the story is wholly consistent with Otto Reich’s playbook as evidenced by the title of her February 13th column, “Cuba Moves In for the Kill” < http://on.wsj.com/1c5Jo2S >. Absent proof, filled with undocumented assertions, O’Grady established a pretext for foreign intervention. After all, aren’t the Cubans are already intervening? O’Grady has already been challenged on many occasions for her fantasy-based journalism. Unusually, back in 2004, O’Grady received a firm rebuke in a letter from former President Jimmy Carter to the Journal advising her to respect the will of Venezuelan voters < http://bloom.bg/1n8lF3E >. Over the years, more exposés followed, but none of this seems to have fazed either the Journal’s management or the rest of the media establishment. Instead, it seems to have created space as tendentious reportage appearing in the New York Times (Simon Romero through 2011), the Washington Post (its Juan Forero has now joined O’Grady at the Journal < http://bit.ly/1c5N2d7 >) and National Public Radio.
So, when President Maduro expressed his suspicion about the sudden closing of pro-government Twitter accounts and a small but sharp drop in number of his own Twitter followers, U.S. media framed it as an example of his paranoia and lack of technical sophistication. Ridicule followed in the media when Maduro called for the “liberation of Latin America from Twitter.” In contrast, the media is at pains to emphasize the Harvard education of leading right-wing opposition figure, Leopoldo López. Completely removed from the conversation are the close ties between Twitter and the U.S. Department of State. Specifically relevant to Venezuela is the co-sponsorship of the global Alliance of Youth Movements by all the major technology companies, including Twitter, Apple and Google (see their website at < http://movements.org > for evidence of the close relationship between the corporations and the State Department). A Condoleezza Rice aide, Jared Cohen, and Hillary Clinton’s State Department founded the alliance.
The routinized collaboration between these technology corporations and the State Department, and their ongoing partnership to train grassroots activists from around the world should form part of any balanced media narrative about events in Venezuela. In less contested situations, these organizations have boasted about their support for aspects of the Arab Spring (see especially the co-authored book published by Condoleezza Rice protégé and Movements.org leader Jared Cohen and Google’s Eric Schmidt, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business). Absent this factual background about the collaboration between technology corporations and the State Department, President Maduro’s statements simply appear irrational and complete the opposition’s narrative. With this background, however, the president’s statements seem worthy of further investigation by independent journalists and scholars.
But this is not happening. Worse, some on the left and in the broader progressive community are content to respond via social media. However, it is not enough to counter the right in social media or to reveal fakeries on Twitter. It is important to recognize the mutually reinforcing dynamic between individual social media posts and the radical amplification created by traditional broadcast and print media. For example, a modest YouTube video, produced by a Venezuelan-American marketing student in Miami that seems to have learned the lessons movements.org teaches, was quickly seized upon by traditional media, amplifying its “virality” yielding nearly 3-million views. Even the relatively independent Guardian gave it space with a report that only skimmed the surface < http://bit.ly/1n8iQzs >.
In this context of a dominant Western narrative about the revolution centered on the alleged irrationality of the Bolivarian leadership and the impracticability of their project, the latest U.S./opposition initiative has found support from some on the left. In the Guardian and the Observer, the reportage of Rory Carroll has found platforms for an especially cynical view of the revolution framed with the imagery of Third World buffoonery and egomaniacal leadership. Similarly, writing in the Independent, James Bloodworth chastises the left for having a “blindspot” when it comes to Venezuela < http://ind.pn/1n8qYjB >. Most notably, in this hostile media context, the Panamanian actor-musician-politician Ruben Blades has also thrown in his lot with the privileged student movement only to lament its cooptation by the right.
Even where the dominant media has been forced to retract some of its claims such as the recent New York Times’ correction of its story about the Venezuela media landscape < http://bit.ly/1n8qsSI >, a larger problem remains for progressive supporters of the Venezuelan revolution. They have to face a counter-revolutionary opposition that appears more authentically Venezuelan than does the pro-Venezuelan left in this country.
The problem here is exemplified on many levels by people like the Miami-based Venezuelan student Andreina Nash, the journalists Juan Forero and Simón Romero, and former Venezuelan Minister of Trade and Industry Moisés Naím. It is the problem of class formation on a global scale. The Latin American elites, products of the world’s most unequal societies, are now fully integrated into U.S. establishments. From there, they can speak with a measure of authenticity as representatives of those countries even if they are born or stationed in the U.S..
Naím, for example, has served as editor of the establishment journal, Foreign Policy, a regular contributor to the Financial Times, a World Bank executive director, and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy – all this despite his participation in the government of Carlos Andres Pérez which massacred upwards of 2,000 Venezuelans during the Caracazo of 1989. After his tenure in government and the revolt against the neo-liberal austerity policy package that led to the Caracazo, Naím suggested that the public did not understand the policy goals of neoliberalism and that this failure led to their negative reaction. Today, however, using every one of many powerful public and media platforms available to him, Naím is an implacable and voluble critic of the Bolivarian revolution.
But Naím is not alone. In fact, funded by the nation’s oil wealth, a significant upper middle class emerged in Venezuela in the 1970s and 80s to fully integrate their life plans into the U.S.: not only were shopping trips to Miami seen as a birthright for that milieu, but educational plans and career trajectories were based on relationships with U.S. educational institutions and economic enterprises. The transition to 21st Century Socialism threatens the economic fundamentals to these life plans but it also runs head on into the capitalist worldview and sense of entitlement that came with the petrodollar-fueled lifestyles. This explains the deep revulsion, palpable anger and sense of injustice evinced by privileged Venezuelans when they talk of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution. Solidarity actions or pro-revolutionary conversations in the United States often draw both visceral and organized opprobrium from members of this transnationalized, bi-cultural social layer.
From an organizer’s point of view then, we not only have a hostile media environment, but we also face an articulate, upper-middle class opposition in the United States that has competency in both U.S. and Venezuelan culture. It is therefore able to present sympathetic, social media-savvy, made-for-TV spokespeople.
Against this backdrop, important progressive groundwork has been done that has given voice to or amplified the work of Venezuelans drawn from working class, Afro-Venezuelan, youth, and indigenous communities and women’s organizations (see Pablo Navarrete’s documentary Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela < http://www.alborada.net/alboradafilms >, Venezuela Speaks!: Voices From The Grassroots edited by Carlos Martinez, Michael Fox and JoJo Farrell < http://bit.ly/1hKlAkH >, and more recently, George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution < http://amzn.to/1hKm4av >). # The challenge for Venezuelans in the U.S. who support the revolution and for other U.S. leftists is to build on this work by ensuring that they too train, learn from, and present “sympathetic, social media-savvy, made-for-TV spokespeople” from the working classes that the revolution has empowered and thereby build on the foundational work of Naverrete, Martinez and others.
The grassroots, working-class orientation of these serious works is a useful antidote to another media dynamic. Large-scale protests easily infatuate foreign correspondents appealing to their self-identification as “witnesses to history.” Typically the early reports exude and share the protestors’ euphoria and sense of making history. This reportage also provides positive feedback loops for the movement; more coverage attracts more people to the movement. Days or hours into the cycle, editorial prerogatives and national interests set it. The media passes the torch from the people in the streets to the men-in-suits, usually anointed by the media as authentic representatives of the people in the streets; reportage correspondingly shifts from junior correspondents, stringers and free-lancers to senior correspondents and anchors. With its disappearance from broadcast media, the movement similarly returns to the ether out of which it initially precipitated. The grievances and the people remain but they return to their pre-“sack-of-potatoes” state – disconnected from one another in the absence of the unifying threads provided by mass media coverage. No longer televised, the revolution does not happen. A similar fate awaits those lower middle-class forces whose legitimate day-to-day frustrations have drawn them into the streets against the Bolivarian revolution; in the event of their movement’s “success” they will be forgotten and the cameras turn to the traditional oligarchy and its machinations.
Averting such an outcome requires both building alternative media from below and engaging the mainstream media. Assuming we have the means and spokespeople to intervene via broadcast and social media channels, what then should be the content of our messaging and framing? It is necessary, of course, to start with the need to defend both Venezuelan sovereignty and the electoral process. However, this may be too narrow a frame because we surely wish to defend more than that. We obviously don’t feel the same motivation to defend Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in Mexico or Antonis Samaras’s in Greece. Moreover, most leftists are not enamored by governments and even elections but by social transformation that empowers and reflects the sovereignty of working people.
3. More than sovereignty and election outcomes, the left must defend the social transformation still underway in Venezuela
For tactical and strategic reasons, quite apart from the strong factual grounds, it makes sense for us to defend sovereignty and electoral processes even if our principles lead us to reject of the sovereignty of states over people and national elections over community-based power. However, the gains of the Venezuelan revolutionary process are sufficient and sturdy enough to allow us to seriously tout the socio-economic transformations from increases in health indicators, educational enrollment, voter participation rates, and poverty reduction using mainstream sources including World Bank data < http://bit.ly/NtDxcR >.
However it is not enough to have good numbers at one’s finger tips. It is necessary to tell a story that allows people in the United States to understand how these numbers come to be: that they went from “bad” to “improving” as a consequence of a social revolution, i.e. weakening the rule of local governing elites and international capital. This means telling a story of how working people and the Chavez government created a virtuous circle of working class empowerment and radical policy implementation. The more the upper classes turned on Chavez, the more he had to turn to the working classes; mobilizing their vote required more radical policies and a continuous deepening of social reform and expansion of support for revolution throughout Latin America. In language similar to that of the present note, one can find a detailed narrative of this cycle in Greg Wilpert’s Changing Venezuela by Taking Power < http://bit.ly/NtEP7q > (sorely in need of a second edition given the radical political changes since its publication); much more personal stories about the process in the aforementioned books by Martinez and his co-editors and in Ciccariello-Maher.
Expanding the frame from formal political sovereignty and electoral choices, may not be too difficult for the U.S. left. After all, in the United States, progressives who defend working class gains, often see the liberal democratic state (including the institutional frameworks of the social safety net, affirmative action, environmental protections), among those gains, and they defend elections and social gains by both traditional means and direct action. In the fast-evolving Venezuelan situation we need to plainly state our principles even where some may contradict each other leading to charges of double standards.
First - to defend the working people’s social gains with the best available tools – inside and outside the context of the liberal state.
Second – to defend the right of working people to expand their social gains with the best available tools inside and outside the liberal state.
Third – to defend formal democracy because it is conducive for the first and second principles.
Framing our principles in these stark class terms also makes manifest the ruling class project in Venezuela: to defend the global power structure, to recoup the power of old elites, to reluctantly defend democracy and the liberal state only insofar as it is conducive for the first and second principles.
By talking about social class, we also challenge mainstream media’s claim that certain confrontations represent say, “students” against the “government”; instead we can talk about the traditional elitist private and public university students versus those in the new Bolivarian universities.
The larger reason for emphasizing the class or social basis for supporting the Bolivarian revolution is to avoid creating a symmetry between the current government and the opposition. It is also to indicate that we will defend this project of working-class empowerment regardless of who is in government just as we would defend the social gains already achieved. There are solid models for this where the left is not in power: challenging water privatization in pre-Morales Bolivia, defending trade union rights and displaced peoples in Colombia, supporting indigenous struggles against “development” in Ecuador and Brazil, to mention a few examples.
By emphasizing the social project of transformation in the interests of working people, we also allow ourselves to imagine two difficult situations that will emerge (1) if imperial and allied opposition forces were to clinch an electoral victory against a battle weary people or if (2) the United Socialist Party of Venezuela turns to centrist or neo-liberal solutions to “solve” the economic crisis.
Unfortunately, the examples where a genuinely revolutionary government is removed from power by electoral means (usually after a long campaign of extra-constitutional pressures and sabotage) such as in Nicaragua (1990) or by coup such as in Indonesia (1965), Portugal (1975) or Chile (1973) suggest that the right will not let constitutional niceties or human rights stand in their way. In Venezuela, where political polarization also has class, race and national dimensions, coupled with imperial wrath, one has reason to fear outcomes closer in nature to Indonesia’s than to Nicaragua’s.
This feared moment may not have arrived in present crisis, but nonetheless the day of reckoning between class projects cannot be postponed indefinitely. In the context of rising oil prices, the state could afford to redistribute the surpluses without radically antagonizing the local elites. Moving forward, as the current polarization indicates, this deferral is no longer as possible as it once was. In his last public speech, the retrospectively famous Golpe de Timón (Change of Course) address, Hugo Chavez recognized the fact of a new revolutionary cycle.
4. System change necessarily means economic crisis, opportunities for corruption, possibilities for crime, and increased polarization
Nobody campaigns on a platform promising increased inflation, corruption, shortages and crime. Unfortunately, all of these things are likely, even necessary, evils in the process of changing from one system to another even if there were a favorable international context – something the Venezuelans cannot claim to have. It is also true that all of these problems are inherent to the global economy regardless of who governs this or that country. Nonetheless, media control and a hostile opposition in a formally democratic system provides the means to politicize all of these things and polarize a country against the government of the day. Given that media control usually rests with powerful rightwing figures (like Mary O’Grady’s employer, Rupert Murdoch) and international political party/think tank networks coordinated through entities like the National Endowment for Democracy and its constitutive institutes, the odds are stacked against the left even where it has state power.
It is worth noting too that all of these problems have featured as talking points for the opposition candidates in all Venezuelan elections to date. Not only have these elections returned the Bolivarians to power, most recently in last December’s local and state elections (with an aggregate margin of victory approaching 10% - a decisive victory measured by U.S. election standards), but they have also increased the size of the electorate – meaning more and more Venezuelans are participating in constitutionally available processes to peacefully choose their governments. This suggests that the Bolivarians have been able to project and give reality to an alternative model of development that continues to deliver real benefits to the Venezuelan majority.
Nonetheless, two disturbing patterns may also be discerned – (1) there has been a measurable and palpable worsening of inflation and shortages and (2) the opposition share of the vote has increased and expands well beyond the traditional oligarchy and is winning over some working class and lower-middle class communities that were initially “activated” by the revolution. Although these have not undermined the revolution’s gains, they remain matters to be addressed by the left.
Unfortunately, the real politics of any social revolution necessarily produces these problems. Inflation in Venezuela is aggravated by the decision to fix foreign exchange rates and implement other capital controls. However, this was a defensive move against capital flight and the economic sabotage dating back to 2002-03. A temporary expedient then, it remained in place preventing the gradual adjustment of exchange rates to reflect market conditions. Every official price adjustment then becomes a deliberate and contested political movement rather than a gradual adjustment to market signals. As a result, any shift to floating exchange rates is likely to produce a shock. This challenge faces any government; if the opposition comes to power and floats exchange rates, economic chaos will still ensue just as much as it would if President Maduro makes the same move.
Inflation, the right loves to point out, is a form of taxation – reducing the savings of the middle class and propertied layers. This is essentially correct. However, a certain measure of inflation should be viewed positively as an effective policy of taxation when spending is directed at priority sectors and to protect the economically vulnerable. Indeed, regular minimum wage increases have outstripped the annual inflation rate; helping explain why the poor are largely absent from the current wave of protests (or in the case of Caracas, why the barricades are confined to wealthy east Caracas). In the current polarized context, however, a 56% annual inflation rate may simply unsustainable politically given polarized political context.
For Venezuela whose exports are driven by oil, all other prices are distorted by the world demand for that product. The superior buying power and wages in that sector inevitably pulls resources and labor to that money-making sector. As a result, it is often cheaper to import commodities than to produce them nationally. Known as the “Dutch Disease” after Netherlands’ experience following the discovery of large natural gas fields that caused the decline of the manufacturing sector, this syndrome becomes especially pronounced when a government such the Bolivarians’ has had to balance the meeting of pent-up and just social demands with the needs of long-term economic development.
Both points on this scale, social demand and development, would be challenging in any state even where capacity and technical resources exist – witness for example the false starts in the U.S. alternative energy sector or the U.S. history with public housing. In a less-developed country, where vast sectors of the working class were simply excluded from economic development, the challenge is all the more intense. Couple that with the educated middle-classes, technicians and managerial layers aligning themselves with the opposition project of removing the elected government through unconstitutional means, then the mismanagement, poor investment choices, and an erratic policy environment are inevitable. Even then, the Bolivarians managed dramatic poverty reduction, the extension of health care and water to underserved communities < http://bit.ly/PkKiyG >, and thousands of new development projects.
With the benefit of hindsight, can we say that the Bolivarians should not have alienated the managerial layers, the middle classes and the technicians? Surely things would have been better had these sectors bought into the process. In the same vein, it may be easy to consider technical fixes to these problems. Unfortunately, no such choice faces the reforms proposed by the Bolivarians. Instead they faced the implacable demands of the opposition. Only in 2012, and even then, more as a matter of electoral expediency, did part of the opposition come around and claim to support the widely-popular programs that served the Venezuelan majority. By this point however, identities were politicized and polarized forcing Bolivarians (and their supporters in the United States) to choose between affirming those who would defend the revolution’s gains and those who would align with the U.S. government and undo those gains.
More than a political choice, this is also a social choice and one reflected in Hugo Chavez’s last speech (the Golpe de Tímon speech < http://bit.ly/1g0JFUf > [in Spanish] ), where he presents the deepening of the revolution and defense of its gains as a policy of radically decentralizing the state, increasing local power, and increasing accountability of representatives. Although forecasting a “change of course,” his prescription builds on work already initiated in by the system of communal councils. Addressing the problems of corruption, accountability, inflation, service delivery and the like then becomes a challenge for Venezuelans themselves and not technocrats hiding behind party affiliation or ideological labels.
As can be seen from the existing communal councils, this will necessarily be an uneven process with many institutions failing, performing with mixed results and others succeeding.+ It also means the lines of accountability and administration will necessarily be blurred as questions of jurisdiction, resourcing, capacity, and execution straddle pre-existing institutions and the emerging councils. This is surely a necessary and welcome process if democracy is to become participatory, educative of new decision makers, and a fomenter of popular sovereignty – all things the Jeffersonian democrats among the U.S. left will surely applaud. But it will necessarily create opportunities for corrupt, resource wastage, shortages and the like.
In short, promoting a system change – devolving power to the people – is both necessary and fraught with danger. Short-term political calculations and modern media spin all endanger the project but potential achievement of the long-term goal of popular sovereignty will permanently shift the balance away from the State and capitalism.
For the left in Venezuela, including the Trostskyist and libertarian forms, the response to this dilemma is to seek “a territorial strategy [whereby] area by area, the people’s self-governed “other republic” can arise.” (to borrow from Roland Denis, a former deputy minister of planning, writing in Aporrea) < http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/9357 >. Denis further declares that the thousands of self-governed grassroots organizations, “should profile [themselves] as the power above any other institution, power structure, law, and consequent political culture.” Unfortunately, the mechanisms by which thousands of dispersed grassroots organizations of elevate themselves “above any other institutions” are simply not self-evident. The topic returns us to the perennial question of the state’s role in transitional periods. In Chavez’s Golpe de Tímon address, delivered in the wake of a profound electoral victory over the right and at a moment when he was confronting his own mortality, he clearly aligns with Denis’ ultimate objective but does not wish away the state.
Denis’ own account of the transition speaks of a “rupture” premised on “the firm and organic initiative of a collective vanguard that makes this line of rupture continuous and progressive; that is, a line of training, broad initiatives of organization, a willingness to struggle, and conversion into protagonists of production of material and non-material goods that start to respond to collective needs, producing their own economy, communicational network and defense.” Unfortunately, these speak to different time frame—the “war of position” to use an old language--than that afforded by the current moment—the “war of maneuver”—of crisis. Ironically, Denis opens his essay tacitly acknowledging that we are dealing with politics in real time; the essay is entitled, “We’ve Definitely Arrived at the Inevitable,” and his first thesis is that “the esquálidos [derisive term for the oligarchy] can retake power.”
For the U.S. left, these debates are not matters of doctrinal contention (though there are such resonances), but practical concerns about how we can take action. The left in the U.S. can (and must) take two easily-arrived at positions: (1) continue/increase connections with and support for grassroots projects that empower working people in Venezuela and (2) demand respect for Venezuelan sovereignty and its electoral positions. However, in this moment of crisis, where the state and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are confronting real right-wing threats, where the state itself may not be acting coherently (witness the arrest of the SEBIN personnel or certain repressive actions taken by the National Guard), everything is more difficult: next steps are much trickier. For the left in Venezuela, both inside and outside the PSUV, the challenge is to defend against the nationalist and right-wing opposition forces while conducting a struggle against the opportunistic and bureaucratic elements within the PSUV. Surely, there is a creative approach which does not involve capitulating to the obsolete notion of a “monolithic unity” with or within the PSUV but grassroots-level support and coordination against the right?
Against Denis’ “inevitable moment” and erstwhile chavista Heinz Dieterich’s prediction that President Maduro has but weeks to go, the government seems likely to survive. But this may not be enough. There remains the danger that it will make concessions to the right while seeking stability. Inflation may be attacked by reducing social demand (i.e. allowing price increases to radically outstrip subsidies and wages) and reducing living standards of the PSUV’s base. A call may be made for “short-term” sacrifices in the face of vague promises of future stability and gains. The external left should have little voice in this debate however it will have to work with grassroots groups in Venezuela that may choose to offset any economic retrenchment with the deepening of the participatory aspects of the revolution.
Summing Up: the search for a political center in the current polarized setting is folly; the left has to choose a side
Those of us sitting outside of Venezuela lamenting the violence and the cycle of charge and counter charge have the luxury of feeling frustrated by developments without having to live with the consequences. Interviewed by El Pais < http://bit.ly/1hK98kS >, Rubén Blades vents his frustration at the polarized context into which his support for (right wing) student protests fell: in "the 21st century… we should have overcome this matter of labels. If I criticize someone who is considered leftist, I'm from the CIA, if I criticize someone who is considered ‘right’, then I am a communist, when I am critical of militarism, I'm 'subversive.'”
The problem for Blades and ourselves, is that the contention is not over labels but over the actual social forces underlying each. To be sure, there is substantial distance between the labels and the underlying social forces. To complain about labels alone is to disappear those underlying social forces and processes. This note has argued that we confront a global context where the United States can no longer pretend that its mission is democracy. Further, bridging the United States and Venezuela is a “transnationalized” layer of people who have the capacity to frame the media conversation and policy agenda. We also argued that the revolutionary process of positive social change in Venezuela runs against the interests of this layer of people. Moreover, the revolutionary process creates real and inescapable problems alongside the positive changes. The United States and this transnationalized class of Venezuelans have the capacity to polarize the conversation about Venezuela and thereby restrict the options available to the Venezuelan government and progressive forces.
Against this, we have argued that the left needs to rally behind the revolutionary process using a framing that educates people here about the social forces at play in Venezuela. The left may also help in de-polarizing the political conversation so that the many middle layers who have now thrown their lot in with the opposition may seek policies that correspond to the underlying interests. However, the current cycle of violence needs to be ended first but that requires recognition that the current attempt to oust President Maduro preempts the constitutional route to recall the president. Only the right has the capacity to stop the violence because it is in service of their privileges.
~ Suren Moodliar serves as Director of Global Policy Programs on the Democracy Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet. He is also a coordinator of encuentro5 and Mass. Global Action. He is grateful to Jorge Marin, Victor Wallis, Umang Kumar, Sean Donohue, and Iraida Blanco for their suggestions (and even some disagreements).
* Further note on style – when dealing with relatively uncontroversial or well-documented historical generalities, this note uses the “passive voice”; this is because the active “subjects” are usually many and/or complex. Use of the passive voice allows the writer to avoid long lists and nitpicking over who does and when – for the purposes of this note; in other news-oriented or strictly analytic pieces the opposite is necessary.
** “Realism” in foreign policy terms places the interests of the state (understood as maximizing state power) at the strategic center of policy regardless of values (e.g. peace or human rights) and ideals (e.g. democracy or “free markets”). The larger question about who defines those interests goes unexamined and masks the power of this or that group to define the “national interest.” On the Democratic Party and realism, please see: “Barak Obama, Realist” < http://prospect.org/article/barack-obama-realist> in the American Prospect.
*** The best documented work comes from lawyer Eva Golinger and is available from her blog, “The Chavez Code” < http://ChavezCode.com >; see her most recent summary at < http://www.chavezcode.com/2014/02/venezuela-beyond-protests-revolution-is.html >. For more detailed analysis of U.S. and other First World funding of Venezuelan Opposition, see her summary here: http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/5441.
# Three especially useful English-language sites for information about Venezuela are: Venezueala Analysis, http://VenezuelAnalysis.com, the Washington Office on Latin America’s Venezuela blog, http://www.WOLA.org, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s site, http://www.FAIR.org, Just Foreign Policy’s site, http://www.justforeignpolicy.org/, and the Center for Economics and Policy Research, http://www.cepr.net/. Both Z Magazine, http://zmag.org, and CounterPunch, http://CounterPunch.org , regularly feature articles on Venezuela.
+ This is not a uniquely socialist problem, everyday capitalist enterprises come and go, some succeed, others fail.
++ “No me he sumado, consciente o inconscientemente, a ningún tipo de complot orquestado por la CIA, ni formo parte de ningún ‘Lobby Internacional’ con el propósito de crear mala publicidad para gobierno alguno. Me sorprende escuchar una vez más este tipo de acusaciones, en pleno siglo XXI, cuando debíamos haber superado ese asunto de las etiquetas. Si critico a alguien que se considera de izquierda, soy de la CIA; si critico a quien se considera de derecha, entonces soy comunista; cuando critico al militarismo, soy 'subversivo' adujo.”