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  Number 432 | Julio 2017
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Latin America

The Venezuelan crisis poses a challenge for the Left

The Venezuelan crisis poses both a challenge and a dilemma for Latin America’s Left, dividing it and immersing it in debate. On one side are those who interpret what’s happening there as the result of imperialism’s aggressive strategy. They applaud Maduro’s repressive response and his dissolving of the Legislative Assembly, replacing it with a “Cuban-style” Constituent Assembly. Others, seeing Maduro’s government as undemocratic, argue that defense against all foreign interference must be based on more democracy, not more authoritarianism.

Rafael Rojas

The turn of events in the Venezuelan situation, with prolonged grassroots mobilization against Nicolás Maduro’s government and his call for a National Constituent Assembly, has split the Latin American Left that supports 21st-century socialism.

This division is very similar to the one in the old revolutionary Left after Fidel Castro’s government arrested poet Heberto Padilla in 1971 and forced him to make a public confession before Cuban writers and artists.

The issue at stake at that time was whether the Left accepted the Soviet-styling of Cuban socialism. What’s being debated by the Left today is largely whether it accepts the definitive Cuban styling of Chavism.

21st-century socialism differentiated itself from the Cuban model


Since the mid-2000s, when Hugo Chávez—in constant dialogue with Fidel Castro—introduced his 21st-century socialist project, Latin American public opinion began to propagate the idea that Venezuela was heading towards the Cuban model. Chávez, Fidel and some of their subordinates, such as Cuba’s then-Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, asserted that Venezuela and Cuba were on the way to some kind of integration; “the same country with two Presidents,” as Lage put it. Between 2006 and 2007, when Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador came to power and ALBA was formed, the Venezuelan and Cuban media shouldered the task of presenting the rise to power of the new Left as a triumph of the Cuban model.

But just two years later, with the adoption of new Bolivian and Ecuadoran Constitutions, it became evident that the diverse triangle formed by Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia—with participatory democracy, plebiscite mechanisms, third- and fourth-generation rights, indigenous peoples’ autonomy, etc.—was nothing like Cuba’s political system. The three Bolivarian governments were indisputably allied to Raúl Castro’s Cuba. Fidel had already retired by that time, but their constitutional norms and political-institutional systems were clearly different from those in the Cuban model. A single Communist Party regime wasn’t established in any of those countries; neither their economies nor their civil societies were state-managed; and the government didn’t have absolute control over the media.

Despite the evidence, broad sectors in Latin America, both left and right, confused geopolitics with ideology and assumed that 21st-century socialism was heading toward the Cuban model. The “Bolivarian” propaganda of media such as Tele-Sur,

Granma and Cubadebate

contributed decisively to this misunderstanding, which came to have wide-ranging resonance in the social sciences’ intellectual and academic media such as the Latin American Council for Social Sciences (CLACSO), where the history of Latin American ideas was replaced by a succession of uncritically superimposed icons: among them Simón Bolívar, Hugo Chávez, José Martí and Fidel Castro.

Venezuela will now copy the Cuban model


Now, with the de facto dissolution of the Venezuelan National Assembly, which involved transferring legislative functions to the Supreme Court of Justice, and with the announcement of a new constituent process ending Chavéz’s constitutionality, processes resolutely supported by Havana, we can see that the basic lines of Venezuela’s political process weren’t actually copying the Cuban format before. The real copying will start in July, when the new Constituent Assembly is decided upon without endorsement by a full plebiscite of the original sovereign (the people), as Chávez assured in 1999. Instead of being elected through direct, secret and universal suffrage of the citizenry, representatives will be elected by “sectors,” which is how Cuba’s electoral and representative system works.

The arguments of those in the Latin American Left who advocate this decision by Nicolás Maduro’s government share the same duplicity of the traditional discourse in favor first of the Cuban Revolution and then of the political regime that grew out of it, which still exists today. That discourse is duplicitous because it functions on two levels: one that’s immediate, political and largely defensive—Cuba is under attack from imperialism and thus must be supported; and the other, more ideological and pragmatic one that argues that the outcome must always be the most “radical” ones in “socialist” terms because of the harassment, which means concentrating all power to administer the country along non-capitalist, non-democratic lines.

“The time for talking is over”


Two Argentinian intellectuals, sociologist and political scientist Atilio Borón and economist Claudio Katz, have perhaps most clearly formulated this double meaning in support of Maduro. In an article reproduced by Cubadebate, the Cuban Communist Party’s webpage, Borón concerns himself with the first part of the discourse, arguing that the Venezuelan conflict doesn’t originate with the dispute between two legitimately elected powers: Nicolás Maduro’s executive branch and a legislature with the opposition in the majority. Its origin is US imperialist aggression, and the entire opposition forms a part of it. The Venezuelan conflict is therefore an economic, political, civil or “unconventional” war, in which we must take sides.

Borón says: “The only sensible and rational attitude that remains for President Nicolás Maduro’s government is to vigorously defend the current institutional order and mobilize all his armed forces without delay to crush the counterrevolution and restore normal social life. Venezuela is the object not only of an economic war and a brutal diplomatic and media offensive, but now also of an unconventional war that has claimed more than fifty deaths and produced enormous material damages. Martí said, ‘Plan against plan.’ So if a social force declares war on the government, the response has to be military. The time for talking is over and the results are in plain sight.”

“Crush the capitalists with communal power”


Meanwhile, Katz clarifies the second part of the argument: the idea that a civil war or, more precisely, an anti-imperialist war is the ideal setting for reconstituting Chavez’s regime through radical anti-capitalism. In an interview with the e-bulletin Rebelión, the economist suggests this route and, in passing, questions the false alternative he claims has been posited by the Latin American Left governments that don’t adhere to a real anti-capitalist project. “Unlike Manuel Zelaya, Dilma or Lugo,” Katz says, “Maduro doesn’t give up” and “that decision to resist explains the hatred of those in power in the region.” His historical analogies refer to Salvador Allende in September 1973, and his theoretical mentor is none other than Antonio Gramsci.

Katz says: “We’re in the middle of the battle and the final outcome isn’t written. There was an interesting reactivation of the ways to alleviate shortages and the excellent initiative to withdraw the country from the OAS was adopted. The only way to defeat the Right is to transform socialist discourse into deeds. In extreme situations and looking into the abyss, the Bolivarian Project can be reborn with a more radical profile… Applying Gramsci’s methodology to today’s Venezuela would involve taking revolutionary decisions. The communist leader did not hesitate to call for adoption of such decisions and is why he considered Bolshevik actions “a revolution against capital,” in the sense of processes that break through all previous limitations. He emphasized that history doesn’t have a predetermined course. Crushing the sabotage of capitalists with communal power would be equivalent to the Soviets’ acts defended by Gramsci.”

“All power to remain in power”


Another flank of the Latin American socialist Left is mobilizing to confront positions such as those of Katz and Borón, demanding loyalty to the legacy of Chavist constitutionality and, above all, the model of participatory democracy established in the 1999 Venezuelan, 2008 Bolivian and 2009 Ecuadorian Constitutions.

Perhaps the central figure in this alignment inside Venezuela is the public prosecutions director, Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has openly shown her disagreement with the convening of the National Constituent Assembly and its electoral system. She has even filed an appeal against Maduro’s government on grounds of unconstitutionality because, although she acknowledges his right to the Constituent Assembly initiative, she doesn’t accept original sovereignty as it isn’t being submitted to a popular referendum. In addition to calling her a “traitor” and “terrorist,” the government’s response to her appeal is a threat of removing her from office once the new Assembly is installed.

Intellectuals from the Chavist Left holding positions similar to Ortega’s include Edgardo Lander, sociology professor at the Central University of Venezuela and author of the important 1995 book Neoliberalismo, sociedad civil y democracia,where he put forward many of the issues debated within the Latin American Left in the last two decades.

In a conversation with the Philosophical Network of Uruguay in April, Lander observed that the closing of institutional channels to resolve the conflict—Maduro’s repudiation of the National Assembly, the continuation of the same National Electoral Council, the cancellation of the revocation referendum and the postponement of regional and local elections—has produced an upsurge in repression and violence from both the government and grassroots protests.

Since the opposition’s victory in the 2015 legislative elections, Maduro’s rationale has been to concentrate power. As Lander said, “We’re in a situation where power is totally concentrated in the Executive. There’s no Legislative Assembly. Maduro has been governing for over a year now by automatically-renewed emergency decree, which ought to be ratified by the Assembly. We’re very far from anything that could be called democratic practice. In this context, the responses by the media and the opposition are increasingly violent. And the reaction of the government, which is already incapable of doing anything else, is to repress demonstrations and political prisoners. It’s using all the instruments of power to stay in power.”

“The Left’s challenge is to not remain silent”


The Argentinian sociologist Maristella Svampa, a specialist in Latin American social movements and the Bolivarian Left’s decolonization processes, especially in Bolivia, agrees with Lander’s assessment of the situation in Venezuela.

In an article co-signed with Roberto Gargarella, an important Argentinian constitutionalist who has studied the South American Left’s most recent experiences in detail, Svampa revisited Lander’s position. Their article in Página 12, the Argentinian leftist newspaper, titled “The challenge of the Left is to not remain silent,” provoked follow-up responses from Atilio Borón and Modesto Emilio Guerrero.

Svampa and Gargarella wrote: “This dynamic that started with the Executive’s repudiation of other branches of power—the Legislative Assembly, where the opposition is now in the majority after their December 2015 electoral victory—was aggravated and exponentially strengthened by the subsequent postponement of the revocation referendum (a democratizing tool introduced by the Chavist Constitution) and postponement of the 2016 gubernatorial elections, until reaching the Executive’s recent failed internal coup aimed at taking greater powers. All of this generated a new political scenario marked by violence and ungovernability, whose consequences are illustrated in the dramatic daily increase in victims from ckasges between opposition and government forces in a framework of ever increasing institutional repression.”

Telling “the truth” means saying it’s imperialism


Borón’s response to Gargarella and Svampa and, through them, to Lander, titled “Venezuela: not to remain silent, but to tell the truth,” focused on what he called an “absence” in the Argentinian scholars’ analysis: the US government. Without placing that actor front and center, there’s no way to find the “reality” and “truth” of Venezuela. And with it, all that has been said about Maduro’s government since December 2015 to counteract a legislative branch controlled by the opposition, which was legitimately elected according to the 1999 Bolivarian Republic’s norms, formed part of a strategy to defend Venezuela’s sovereignty against US imperialism.

Authoritarianism, which even Borón acknowledged, was thus legitimate if what was at stake was the permanence in power of a “revolutionary” government, assumed to be synonymous with nation and homeland. This government’s opponents—however pacific and constitutional they may be—are by this same definition stateless enemies, traitors and terrorists, as is prosecutor Ortega Díaz.

The debate reaches leftist academic forums


The debate rapidly moved from Argentina to Latin American intellectual left forums, such as the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), which held its latest congress in Lima, Peru.

In April, LASA’s Venezuelan Studies group, formed by Margarita López Maya, Lara Putnam, Iria Puyosa and Juan Pablo Lupi, among others, denounced the “authoritarian action” of transferring legislative functions to the Supreme Court of Justice, based on adjudications 155 and 156, and demanded the “release of political prisoners” and “restoration of the electoral calendar,” as well as the “dismissal of the Supreme Court judges.” The Venezuelan academics’ position was backed by dozens of members and resulted in a Declaration on Venezuela signed by several members of the LASA Executive Committee, which triggered a reaction by Maduro supporters in LASA, mostly Cubans.

In their response titled “LASA is not the OAS,” reproduced by Cubadebate, the Cuban officials’ reproach was that the criticism was primarily aimed at Maduro’s government and didn’t take into account opposition attitudes “whose sole purpose was to overthrow” the government. “The Venezuelan opposition is far from consistently practicing its alleged defense of democracy,” said the academics, most of them active members of the governing Communist Party in Cuba, and denounced LASA for having invited OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to its congress in Lima.

“More democracy, not more authoritarianism”


In late May, as the project for a new National Constituent Assembly was progressing based on communal sectors and street violence was escalating with more than 70 dead since the protests began, a group of leftwing intellectuals launched what they titled an ”Emergency international call to stop violence from escalating in Venezuela. Looking beyond polarization.” It was promoted by Svampa and Gargarella and signed by such notables as Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Aníbal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, Carlos Altamirano and Beatriz Sarlo, among others.

One passage of the document admitted the responsibility of the Venezuelan Right’s most violent sector in the crisis: “As leftwing intellectuals, we don’t ignore regional and global geopolitical reality. It’s clear that certain extremist sectors of the opposition (which is wide-ranging and heterogeneous) are also seeking a violent outcome. For them it’s a matter of exterminating, once and for all, the grassroots vision associated with dangerous ideas such as grassroots organization, participatory democracy, and the profound transformation of society in favor of the subaltern world. These extreme rightwing groups have had political and financial support from the US State Department since the 2002 coup d’état at the very least.”

But, they added, “That said, we do not believe, as certain Latin American leftist sectors have stated, that the issue today is coming to the defense of ‘a grassroots anti-imperialist government.’ This unconditional support from certain activists and intellectuals not only shows ideological blindness but is also detrimental, as it regrettably contributes to the consolidation of an authoritarian regime. The identification of change, even criticism of capitalism, can’t come from anti-democratic projects, which may end up justifying foreign intervention ‘in the name of democracy.’ From our perspective, defense against any foreign intervention must be based on more democracy, not more authoritarianism.”

“The dilemma is between Empire and Revolution”


The response to this document came from the Network of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity with an article titled Now and forever with the Bolivarian Revolution, which copied previous pieces by Borón and Katz almost verbatim, including the same quotes from Gramsci. It argued, in short, that a coup is in progress in Venezuela, just like those that overthrew Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil; and previously Salvador Allende in Chile, Joao Goulart in Brazil and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. It is perpetrated by imperialism and its Venezuelan outpost, which includes the whole opposition, however heterogeneous it may be.

They argue that the dilemma in Venezuela isn’t an executive branch repudiating a legitimate parliament and governing with extraordinary powers versus an opposition that takes to the streets for lack of institutional ways to exercise its legitimacy. It’s between Empire and Revolution, just as the Left has always understood the Cuban question.

Let’s recall the spring of 2003, when Fidel Castro’s government shot three young men trying to emigrate to the United States and imprisoned 75 peaceful opponents, sparking repudiation by some Western leftist intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, José Saramago and, to some degree, Eduardo Galeano, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Benedetti. At the time, this same network issued a letter titled Message from Havana to friends who are far away, signed by the same Cubans who today endorse their unconditional support for Nicolás Maduro. That letter reads: “Our small country is more threatened today than ever by the superpower now seeking to impose a fascist dictatorship on a global scale. To defend itself, Cuba has been obliged to adopt forceful measures that it naturally did not want to adopt. Cuba cannot be judged on the basis of these measures if they are taken out of context.”

“The violence doesn’t have domestic factors”


The new document from these intellectuals and artists “in defense of humanity” argues that of course there’s a militarization process and an escalation of violence, but far from being the product of domestic factors, this militarization is permanently induced by imperialist aggression at all levels (diplomatic, political, economic, military, media, financial). “Do we really have to list the coup d’états in Honduras, Paraguay and Brazil that preceded the current onslaught? The churlish ‘two demons’ theories in analyzing the causes of Venezuelan violence are worthless. What else is meant by the ‘complex and shared origin of the violence’ pointed to in the ‘emergency call’ or by the apparently symmetrical identification of ‘extremists’ from the right and totalitarians from the left, which resulted in an outrageous conclusion: holding the Bolivarian State and government solely responsible for the violence?! Precisely those who insist on a peace strategy! What, according to these intellectuals, should Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionaries have done about the Bay of Pigs invasion? Sit down to parley with non-existent diplomats while bombs blasted Playa Girón? Confront the mercenaries’ guns with ballot slips? Cautiously petition the OAS?”

Their document also contains many criticisms of what the signatories call the “fetishizing” of liberal democracy’s institutions. These intellectuals typically use the well-known concept by Karl Marx with a way of thinking that’s beyond fetishistic, iconic and Manchean, dividing the world obsessively into revolutionary good and imperial evil.

Logically, liberal democracy’s institutions have no place in this kind of rationale precisely because it’s aimed at destroying the legal and political platform of representation, elections, referendums and plebiscites without which any democracy is inconceivable, including the participatory democracy the 21st-century Bolivarian Constitutions introduced.

The Cuban system is Maduro’s last resort


What’s happening in Latin America, saya supporters of the Network in Defense of Humanity’s manifesto (Roberto Fernández Retamar, Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo González Casanova, Víctor Flores Olea…), is a daily Bay of Pigs, a potentially military conflict provoked by the US that justifies despotism and repression.

Even admitting the Venezuelan opposition’s errors and US interventionism in the region—which from a strictly geopolitical point of view should not only include the sanctions on Venezuela by Barack Obama’s administration, but also its rapprochement with the Cuban government, reopening of embassies and easing of the trade embargo—the total lack of criticism of the Maduro government’s behavior implies an endorsement of the state violence in Venezuela. Such an endorsement isn’t circumstantial but rather responds to the explicit project of moving toward Cuban-style socialism in Latin America. The new Venezuelan Constituent Assembly, by electing its representatives through “sectors” and “communally,” and not through direct and secret universal suffrage, copies a key element of Cuba’s political system.

Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere where the population doesn’t directly elect its head of state [envío translator’s note: actually, as members of the Commonwealth, 11 former British colonies in the Caribbean as well as Canada and Belize are sovereign States that recognize the same person, currently Elizabeth II, as their head of State and use the parliamentary system in which the majority party elected to the legislative branch chooses the head of government]. In Cuba’s case, members of parliament nominated by candidacy commissions formed by representatives from the country’s sectors (workers, peasants, women, students, etc.) duly grouped in governmental organizations vote for the head of the executive branch. Following this method, which began in 1976, Fidel Castro was reelected seven times and Raúl Castro is in his third term.

The Cuban model, therefore, doesn’t appear to be a socialist regime’s ideal but a last resort for the repressive handling of Venezuela’s national politics. Nicolás Maduro’s government is opting for this solution in the middle of a legitimacy crisis that can’t be confronted by democratic norms since it would risk losing power.

Cuba offers it the ideal method to perpetuate itself in office without using actual democratic electoral practice or plebiscite mechanisms, which are never called for on the island. The intellectuals who support this authoritarian tendency can only resort to a duplicity that presents the paradigm of “true democracy”—Cuban socialism—as a peremptory necessity in an emergency situation.

They are loyal to repressive States


In the authoritarian Left, ideology ends up subordinated to geopolitics. In this vision, “democratic” ceases to be a synthesis of egalitarian and justiciary values and becomes a merely instrumental device for holding onto or increasing power.

The academics and intellectuals who consider themselves “organic” actors in these processes, recurring to Antonio Gramsci, understand and practice their organic identity not with respect to the citizenry or civil society, but in loyalty and adherence to the State. They are the mouthpieces of specific powers—the Cuban or Venezuelan government—which, in addition to exercising systematic repression in their respective countries, try to monopolize the left’s position in Latin America, so as to slant all the region’s countries towards dictatorship.



Rafael Rojas is a historian and writer. This article was published on June 24 in the e-publication Prodavinci under the title “Venezuela y la izquierda Latinoamérica.” New title and subtitles by envío.

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