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  Number 447 | Octubre 2018
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Latin America

The Left has no critique of the crisis in Venezuela

Nicaragua and Venezuela are increasingly being linked in analyses and declarations. The acute humanitarian crisis of the Bolivarian process and the repressive trend of the Ortega-Murillo process both pose serious questions for the international Left that can’t be resolved by unconditional, uncritical solidarity.

Edgardo Lander

Eduardo Lander isn’t only a respected academic. For decades he has also been connected to social and leftist movements in Venezuela. From that vantage point, he has seen that the unconditional support for Chavism by the region’s leftist groups has only deepened its negative tendencies. In the following interview published in the Red Filosófica del Uruguay on September 6, 2018, he argues that the world’s leftist movements have lacked the “capacity to learn” so end up backing “mafioso governments” like Nicaragua’s and may simply “look the other way” when “the Venezuelan model collapses.”

The rentier model has
become more pronounced

RF: Three years ago you characterized the situation in Venezuela as the “implosion of the oil-based rentier model.” Does your assessment still apply?
EL: Unfortunately the problems we could characterize as associated with the oil-based rentier model’s demise have only become more pronounced. Venezuela’s 100-year history with the oil industry and its state-centered determination of how to distribute its profits have created not just a model for the State and political parties, but also a political culture and collective idea of Venezuela as a rich country of abundance, along with the notion that political action consists of organizing to seek solutions from the State. This is the baseline mentality. Despite a lot of rhetoric that appeared to take an opposite tack, in reality the Bolivarian process exacerbated this way of thinking. Economically speaking, the colonial project of insertion in the international organization of labor became more pronounced. The collapse of oil prices simply laid bare a reality that’s inevitable for those who depend on a commodity with constantly fluctuating prices.

Nicolás Maduro
is no Hugo Chávez

RF: Criticism of the situation facing Venezuela’s democracy has sharpened since Nicolás Maduro took office. Why is that? How does today’s situation compare with that of Hugo Chávez’s government?
EL: First we have to consider exactly what happened in the transition from Chávez to Maduro. In my opinion, most of the problems we’re facing today had already been building up under Chávez. The analysis by part of the Venezuelan Left, which lauds the Chávez period as a time of glory when everything worked smoothly and then suddenly Maduro came into the picture as a screw-up or traitor, offers overly black-and-white explanations that make it difficult to tease out the structural reasons that have led to the current crisis. To put it schematically, the Venezuelan process was always supported by two fundamental pillars: Chávez’s extraordinary communication and leadership skills, which created social strength, and oil prices that in some years reached over US$100 per barrel. These two pillars collapsed almost simultaneously in 2013: Chávez died and oil prices plunged. And the emperor was shown to have no clothes. It became clear that the model was extremely fragile, because it depended on realities that no longer existed. Moreover, there are critical differences in leadership between Chávez and Maduro.

As a leader, Chávez had the ability to provide direction and meaning. He also displayed uncanny leadership within the Bolivarian government itself, such that when he decided something, it went unquestioned. While this led to a lack of debate and many mistakes, it also generated united action in a clear direction. Maduro doesn’t have this skill, and in fact he’s never had it: everyone does their own thing in the current government. Furthermore, we’ve seen increased militarization during this government, perhaps because Maduro doesn’t come from the military world, so to guarantee support from the armed forces he has to include more of their members and give them more privileges.

Military businesses have been created. Currently one third of the ministers and half of the country’s governors are from the military, and they’ve been placed in critical public administration roles that have the greatest levels of corruption: foreign currency allocation, ports and food distribution. The fact that these areas are in military hands makes transparency of action more difficult, leaving society in the dark about what’s really going on.

The social fabric
has been torn apart

RF: What happened with the social participation processes promoted by the Bolivarian governments?
EL: The very fabric of society is being dismantled in Venezuela today. After an unbelievably rich experience of social and grassroots organization, with movements related to health, telecommunications, urban landholding and literacy that involved millions of people and generated a culture of trust and solidarity, as well as of the capacity to influence one’s own future, you would have thought that a collective capacity to respond would emerge in times of crisis. What has happened instead has shown that it’s just not the case.

Of course I’m speaking in very broad terms; in some places we do find a greater capacity for autonomy and self-governance. But generally speaking, you could say that the reaction we’re seeing today is based on competition and individualistic attitudes. I do think, however, that there’s a reservoir there that may come to the surface at some point.

Socialism was
interpreted as statism

RF: Why couldn’t that current of participation and organization hold up?
EL: From the beginning the process was shot through with a very serious contradiction: between understanding grassroots organization as processes of self-governance and autonomy aimed at weaving the social fabric from the bottom up, and the fact that most of these organizations were the product of top-down public policies promoted by the State.

This contradiction played out differently in each experience. Where organizing experience and community leaders already existed, there was a capacity to confront the State, not to reject it but to negotiate with it.
Moreover, the Bolivarian process underwent a somewhat open transition starting in 2005, moving from the search for a social model different from both the Soviet model and liberal capitalism toward a determination that the model is clearly socialist, based on understanding socialism as statism.
There was a lot of political and ideological influence from Cuba in this conversion. So these organizations began to be thought of as instruments managed at the top, and a Stalinist culture began to come together with regard to community organizing. This has obviously led to a lot of fragility.

The erosion of
democratic practices

RF: What is the situation of democracy in liberal terms?
EL: It’s obviously much more critical under the Maduro government, and also more serious because this government has lost a lot of legitimacy, and thus faces growing rejection by the population while the opposition has made significant inroads.

The government dominated all public authorities until its spectacular loss in the December 2015 parliamentary elections. From that point on, Maduro began to react in increasingly authoritarian ways.
•·To begin with, he refused to recognize the election results, using reasons pulled out of thin air to refuse to accept that the opposition had won the qualified majority away from his alliance. Later, there was a clear refusal to recognize the Assembly as such: for the government it doesn’t exist. It is seen as so illegitimate that a few months ago when new members were to be appointed to the National Electoral Council (CNE), the Court ignored the Assembly and directly named the new members itself, who of course are all Chavistas.
•At the beginning of each year Maduro should have presented a report on the prior year’s administration; but since the Assembly isn’t recognized, the report was presented to the Court. The same happened with the budget.
•We had a recall referendum for which all steps had been completed. It was to have taken place in November 2017, but the CNE decided to postpone it, which actually meant killing it: now there simply is no recall referendum.
•The election of governors was constitutionally mandated for December 2017 and they simply postponed it indefinitely.

So we’re in a situation in which there’s an absolute concentration of power in the executive branch and there is no Legislative Assembly. Nicolás Maduro has been governing by self-renewing emergency decrees for over a year now, whereas these should be ratified by the Legislative Assembly.

We’re very far from anything that could be called democratic practice. In this context, the executive branch’s responses are getting ever more violent. The media and the opposition have also shown violence, and the government—now incapable of any other reaction—is repressing the protests and increasing the number of political prisoners. They are using all the tools of power to keep themselves in power.

Three broad concerns

RF: What are the long-term consequences of this situation?
EL: I would say there are four extrremely worrying issues among the medium- and long-term consequences of all this. First is the destruction of society’s productive fabric, which will take a really long time to recover. A recent presidential decree opened 112,000 square kilometers of jungle to large-scale transnational mining operations in a portion of the Amazon that is the habitat of ten indigenous peoples, as well as the country’s main water sources.

Second is the issue of how the depth of this crisis is eroding the social fabric. Today, as a society, we’re worse off than we were before the Chávez government. This is really hard to say, but it’s indeed the country’s reality.

Third, the receding of living conditions with respect to health and nutrition. The government stopped publishing official statistics so we have to rely on statistics from the business chambers and some universities, but these show that there’s a systematic loss of weight among the Venezuelan population. Some calculations say six kilos per person. And of course, this has consequences for childhood malnutrition, which has long-term effects. Lastly, it has extraordinary consequences regarding the possibility for any vision of change. The idea of socialism—of alternatives—has been dismissed in Venezuela. An idea has taken root that public services are inescapably inefficient and corrupt. It’s an utter failure.

The Left’s “unconditional” solidarity

RF: What is your opinion of how leftist parties around the world, and especially in Latin America, have reacted to what’s happening in Venezuela?
EL: I think one of the problems that has historically dogged the Left is our incredible difficulty learning from experience. Doing so is absolutely necessary to reflect critically on what’s happening and why.
Of course, we know all about how the world’s Communist parties were complicit in the horrors of Stalinism, and not for lack of information. It wasn’t that they found out later about Stalin’s crimes. Rather, there was a complicity that has to do with the criterion of being anti-imperialist, and in a confrontation with the empire, we have to turn a blind eye to the fact they killed so many people. We’re just not going to talk about it.

I think this way of understanding solidarity as unconditional—thanks to leftist rhetoric or anti-imperialist positioning, or because they express geopolitical contradictions with dominant sectors of the global system—leads to a failure to critically investigate the processes taking place. Blind, uncritical solidarity arises whose consequence is not just that I’m going to criticize the others, but also that we actively celebrate many things that end up being extremely negative. The so-called uber-leadership of Chávez was there from the beginning, as was the extractivist production model. What the Left sees as the consequences of all of this in its own culture today was already there.

How can we not open a debate on these things, think critically and offer proposals? It’s not that the European Left should come tell Venezuelans how to manage the revolution; but nor does this uncritical celebration justify anything. We can’t fully explain the depth of the crisis we’re experiencing if we insist that political prisoners aren’t political prisoners and the economic downturn is only a product of economic warfare and operations by the international Right—although that is in fact a real element.

The Left’s responsibility

The Latin American Left has a historical responsibility with respect to, for example, Cuba’s current situation, because for many years it assumed that as long as the Cuban blockade was in place, you couldn’t criticize Cuba. And not criticizing it meant foregoing the possibility of reflecting critically, of identifying both the process that Cuban society was going through and the possibilities for dialogue with that society in terms of alternative options. A large portion of the Cuban population felt they were in a kind of dead end. It was fairly obvious at an individual level, but the Cuban government wouldn’t allow this to be expressed, and the Left in Latin America disengaged, refusing to contribute anything beyond unconditional solidarity.
The most extreme case at the moment is pretending that the Nicaraguan government is revolutionary and is allied with the Left, whereas it’s a thoroughly corrupt Mafioso government. It is one of the most oppressive regimes in Latin America regarding women’s rights and has been in total alliance with corrupt sectors of the bourgeoisie and with the Catholic Church hierarchy, which had previously been one of the Nicaraguan revolution’s biggest enemies.

What’s that about? It’s about strengthening negative tendencies that it might have been possible to bring to light. But furthermore, we don’t learn anything.

If we understand the struggle for anti-capitalist transformation not as a struggle that’s happening over there in which we’re going to display solidarity with what they’re doing, but rather as a struggle that engages all of us, then what you’re doing wrong over there affects us as well. That means I also have the responsibility to point out this experience and learn from it so I don’t repeat it. But we don’t seem to have
the capacity to learn, so when the Venezuelan model finishes collapsing, we’ll just look the other way. And that’s disastrous for solidarity, internationalism and political–intellectual responsibility.

Why does the Left
think this way?

RF: Why does the Left adopt these attitudes?
EL: In part it has to do with how we haven’t completely shed the Left’s way of thinking of some concepts that are too one-dimensional for what’s at stake. If the discussion is about the content of class and anti-imperialism, we judge in a certain way. We can now understand that transformation starts there but is also about a critical feminist perspective and about other ways of relating to Nature. We can also grasp that thinking about democracy doesn’t just mean dismissing bourgeois democracy but rather deepening real democracy. Yet if we understand that transformation is multidimensional because the nature of domination is also multidimensional, why does this uncritical support of leftist governments see indigenous people’s rights as secondary, environmental devastation as secondary and the reproduction of the patriarchy as secondary? When we do this, we end up judging based on a very monolithic history of what anti-capitalist transformation is supposed to be, which doesn’t account for the real world. What good does it do to throw off Yankee imperialism if we enter an identical relationship with China? There’s a political, theoretical and ideological problem—maybe also a generational one—among people for whom this was their last best bet for achieving an alternate society. They are reluctant to accept its failure.

Edgardo Lander is a full professor at Venezuela’s Central University and a researcher affiliated with the Transnational Institute.

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