Venezuela: A New Lesson in Democracy

The complicity of the Spanish media with Venezuelan coup-ism has never been as explicit and committed as it was in 2002, but it has been equally repugnant. The same lies as always, the same topics, the same rubbish.


The complicity of the Spanish media with Venezuelan coup-ism has never been as explicit and committed as it was in 2002, but it has been equally repugnant. The same lies as always, the same topics, the same rubbish. But for me, what stands out the most, is the silence of the most high-profile intellectuals about what seems to me to be the most impressive phenomenon in the history of modern democracy. In Venezuela, since 1999, the year that Chavez became president, poor people have won elections 17 times in a row [translator: in fact, one election was lost in 2008, a constitutional referendum, but that is all].

In 2006, I published, together with Luis Alegre Zahonero, a book called ‘Understand Venezuela, Think Democracy’. The main argument that we defended in it must seem like a rhetorical exaggeration that we didn’t need to take into consideration. However, we were serious. We were defending the fact that Chavez’s electoral victories were the most important and most interesting political event since the French revolution. And it still seems like that to me. From the point of view of commitment to principles of democracy and rule of law, there isn’t a similar example, and if they had a little bit of shame, all the intellectuals who came to be democrats and liberals would have had to have been open mouthed, admiring the beauty of the Bolivarian process.

In the whole history of democracy, never before have the poor won elections (17 times, is more) without such a result being followed by a coup, an invasion, or a war that put an end to constitutional order. It’s true that many times the poor have voted massively for the right-wing. But the characteristic of the Bolivarian process is that this time they voted for the left. To be more precise; what had never before occurred is that the oligarchy of a country lost elections and was obligated to remain under constitutional order. The general norm in the history of democracy was always quite different. In Spain we know it better than anywhere; the last time that the oligarchy lost elections we paid for it with a coup, a civil war, 40 years of Franco-ism, and thousands of tortured and disappeared.

In the book in question, we went over other cases from the 20th century; Guatemala 1944-1950 (United Fruit [Company] financed 32 coup attempts against the constitutional government of Jose Arevalo), Guatemala 1954 (invasion against the constitutional government of Jacobo Arbenz), Indonesia 1965 (around 1 million deaths to pay for the electoral indiscretion that gave victory to Sukarno), Brazil 1964 (coup against the constitutional order of Joao Goulart, who had dared to legislate on the minimum wage), Chile 1973 (coup against the constitutional order presided by Allende). In all these cases history repeats itself; the oligarchy accepts democracy while those who defend their interests win. They get rid of it when those who don’t support them. The list is instructive: Iran 1953, Dominican Republic 1963, Haiti 1990, Haiti 2004, Bolivia 1980, Russia 1993. In Nicaragua they paid for the two Sandinista victories with a war between 1979 and 1990. In Colombia it was more prudent. Before the Patriotic Union could win elections they killed, one by one, all of their electoral spokespeople.

In Europe the history of democracy hasn’t been very commendable either. Not just for the more orthodox cases of Spain in 36, Greece in 1967, or Russia in 1993. The issue is that European fascism had been the last recourse of the oligarchy to undo democracy when it put their interests at risk in a serious way. And after the second world war, after a defeat of fascism in which the communist parties had played a protagonistic role, democracy was restored under the threat of the Truman doctrine, which the US had warned would invade if the communists won elections in Europe. Between 1970 and 1980, Operation Gladio ensured, without skimping on all types of terrorist measures, that this eventuality never became a reality.

I’m not going to insist any more on what I have said so many times already: under capitalism, no constitutional order has resisted the electoral experiment of damaging the interests of the oligarchy. Whenever it has been necessary to chose between the interests of capital and the interests of democracy, the constitution, parliament, and democracy in general is finished with. Capitalism is absolutely incompatible with democracy. Democracy is respected while the right wins or left-wing parties put forward right-wing policies. When it’s not like that, democracy is done for.

For now, there has been a glorious and admirable exception: Venezuela and the following Bolivarian revolution in Latin America. From then it’s been about an exception which confirms the rule, as the threat for coups has always been there, and more, [the threat] has been applauded and supported by the US and European media and political classes. But the difference is that the Venezuelan people managed, in April 2002, to abort a coup, and from then, hasn’t stopped wining elections without coup-ism being able to change them.

Leopoldo Lopez was a coup leader in 2002, the same as Capriles. The most logical thing in a constitutional order is that they would have gone to jail. But the Venezuelan separation of powers favoured them at the time, as there was also a lot of coup-ism in the judicial power. Paradoxically, the constitutional order that they themselves had been attacking, saved them. There’s no point believing that the equivalents of Leopoldo or Capriles in any of our celebrated constitutional democracies would be in prison. That’s what we like to believe but it isn’t true. The historical norm is that the Leopoldos and Capriles always get it fixed for them in order to end with the constitutional order when the election result isn’t convenient. The norm is that they always win. If in Venezuela it wasn’t like that thanks to the revolutionary maturity of a committed, heroic, and intelligent people, a people that have always known how to defend their democracy in a peaceful (but armed) way, with admirable prudence and good judgement.

This unusual and magnificent exception we owe without a doubt to Chavez and the Venezuelan people. 17 times already, the coup-ist oligarchy has had to swallow an electoral victory against it. Nothing like it has occurred in the history of democracy. Philosophers should be thinking about it, this is one of those events that Badiou would talk about. Further, in Venezuela there is something that makes it even more beautiful and heroic. The defeat of coup-ism is the defeat, above all, of racism. Because even though there are many economic interests in play, it has to be said that the Venezuelan oligarchy hasn’t done too badly with the Bolivarian revolution, as proof is the existence of the satisfied “Bolibourgeoisie”. The fundamental problem I believe has been one of racism. What has become intolerable for the Venezuelan oligarchy is that those who keep winning elections are black, mixed, indigenous, poor. That’s why they called Chavez the “monkey”. It must be terrible to contemplate that someone that you called “monkey” beats you in elections ten times in a row. Never had the sans culottes [translator: without shoes, the radical left-wing partisans of the lower classes in the French revolution] won so many times for so long. And so cleanly; via elections.

The legacy has been impressive. Evo’s victory in Bolivia, Correa’s in Ecuador, Cristina in Argentina, Mujica in Uruguay… the Latin American political map has totally changed and it indicates a path to stand up to neoliberalism in Europe. Never have we had in front of us such an interesting experience: making the rule of law work on the edge of a capitalist economic dictatorship. Never have we had such a beautiful spectacle, where a people make the oligarchy bite the dust through elections (without deaths, war, blood baths, or states of emergency). It’s the closest that we’ve had in history to a true rule of law. Totally the opposite of what we have here in Europe, where we call ‘rule of law’ a political model where the election results are only respected when those who win already have economic power. It’s pathetic to see how, in a complete dictatorship of bankers, the European media still dare to give lessons in democracy.

In any case, there are the Venezuelan people to remind us that, despite everything, democracy is possible and that the wager for the rule of law is worth the effort.

Translation by Tamara Pearson for Venezuelanalysis.com