Between the Hammer and the Anvil: the Left, Latin America, and Venezuela

"Even so much as the force of this revolution is to be found in its promises, which are growing ever harder to fulfill, they remain as road maps for a common strategy between popular forces and the government.”

By Mila Ivanovic -


The leaders of Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Venezuela, from left to right. (Photo:
The leaders of Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Venezuela, from left to right. (Photo:
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Translator's Note: Although the two main articles referenced by the author are not available in English, we feel their meaning is made clear in the context of this article. Similar articles by Raul Zibecchi and Immanuel Wallerstein, while not specifically focused on Venezuela, can be found in English at the respective links, and are further examples of this trend of discrediting the historic shift of the Latin American left by highlighting the flaws of the current state structures.

Two texts can be of significant importance if we are trying to orient ourselves in the current labyrinth of present-day Venezuela: an interview with Edgardo Lander, a Venezuelan academic tied to counter-hegemonic globalization and environmentalist sectors, a critic and now even an antagonist of the Maduro administration, and a text of Jose Roberto Duque, a chronicler, popular writer, and convinced chavista. Both of these texts which I read almost simultaneously, seemed to me to engage in a dialogue with a wave of texts relating to the current situation of the Latin American left.

In recent weeks, there have been opinions regarding the “progressive” wave [pink tide] in Latin America and its decline: the end of progressive stories (Schavelzon), of the progressive cycle (Zibecchi), of the “era of promises” (Syampa), and the distinction between a bad left moving rightwards, and a good one whose benevolence is found in the murmurs of indigenous people and the essential conditions to develop Buen Vivir [good living] (Wallerstein).

Before returning to my intention centered on Lander and Duque, this digression serves to submit this judgment to a necessary reflection to help reorient current debate.

A second consideration before I continue: I am now living in Ecuador, country of the Citizens’ Revolution. Contrary to what is happening in Venezuela, a great majority of my acquaintances adopt a very critical or openly opposed position to the government, the mother of this revolution. But as adverse they are to Correa they have a very different opinion regarding Venezuela. In effect, despite the extremely adverse conditions being lived in Venezuela right now, there is a settled history, exceptional and singularly rich in the field of popular struggle. Some will say, indecently, Stalinist, half-sister of corruption and cronyism, but all of us who have given our time and dedication know that it is not this way, or not entirely. And it is that metonymy which motivates me to write these lines. My starting point in this article is that Venezuela is now a question mark, a light that stays on, proof no longer of the Venezuelan exceptionality but rather its exceptional strangeness, in the supposed shipwreck of the Latin American left. This question mark is posed not only to those on the outside but also from within. Who hasn’t asked themselves how this will all end? What will be left after the last drop of hope disappears, along with the dedication toward the development a future that isn’t determined by the editorial line of yesterday’s paper: the featured ethics of every man for himself, that there is no room left for a visionary in the deafening history of the victorious exterminator of dreams and substance.

The story began in 1989, which we will consider worldwide, a date of global significance, that echoes now with more strength considering that the Promethian weight of the two most full decades in a century in Venezuela, which has transformed itself into dust, an acidic dust of little fertility for future generations. Everything appears to be heading toward the collapse of the leftist dream and the possibility that the state is simply a resonance chamber and ally of the peoples’ demands. The Caracazo faded and we, her “children,” enter a tunnel that seems to have no end and few emergency exits.

But, forgive me, and we’ll return for a minute to the two texts that acted as muses for these lines.

Lander focuses on Venezuela, but upon reading it it seems like an echo of the texts I mentioned and the aire du temps that calls upon us to throw history in the trash; everything we have lived, confronted and advanced. What does Edgardo Lander say basically? That the Bolivarian revolution resulted in a poorly crafted story, where Leninist visions prevail (whether these are militaristic or bureaucratic), that in Venezuela we have cast aside the possibility of edifying the university as a space regulated by “free thought,” that all ethical and ontological attempts that could have emerged in the right moment were brought to their knees, in observing the bachaquero [widespread smuggling and reselling] phenomenon. Finally, he introduces the idea of an “epistemological dimension of polarization” which evolves into a “blockade of knowledge” and “collective blindness.”

There could be irreconcilable positions within this ghostly framework of the left (both Venezuelan and international), a falling out toward an aesthetic of pure antagonism, a perfect geometric inversion of Plato’s cave, and other loyal representations of the excesses of what is lived in the flesh, a shot slung at the face of the established [arguments]. This last version is personified by Jose Roberto. In the middle of a “decomposing ethic” represented by bachaqueo, a point on which both authors converge, Duque tells us about the reality of communal spaces in which defense measures and communal repression are applied (which is to say, non-judicial and not police enforced). In summary, one [author] considers [this shared point] the most important advances, the decline of ambiguity entailed in the positioning of politics and the political on a single axis, while the other sees the totality in failures, miasmas and slag which indicate deterioration of the whole being.

I will seize the opportunity in the middle of this reflection to go on a short detour toward an anecdote extracted from my immediate work environment: recently in the IAEN 4 (Institute of National Study- Ecuador) a special event was presented by one of the major present-day exponents of Marxism, David Harvey. During the presentation, the dean of this same institution declared that to study these areas we could not only embrace “libertarian-anarchistic” postures, nor do the opposite by falling into neoliberal tendencies, but rather we need technical and apt positions from the government for public management (even if these contradict the principles that uphold their legitimacy[fn]We see this manifested in the current polemic of Ecuador, in respect to the rights to resistance, and the subordination of rights spanning from environment to social.[/fn]). I will limit myself to pointing to the idea that the Latin American left is going through multiple theories on how to position oneself before the ideas of autonomy, both regional and political, and rationality and pragmatism, and this aspect is crucial to understanding what we are in the midst of in Venezuela.

As in other contexts of the progressive wave, but on a (de)communal level in Venezuela, political theory and practice confront one another in a constant give and take. In the case of Venezuela, there is a certain homology between one thing and the other, in a way that all the critical whims are sacrificed to community morals and imaginary politics. We’ll use two examples to illustrate this idea: the long lines and bachaqueo (products of economic deterioration that includes shortages, negligence, disappearance of state authority, and the dissolving of spending power), and the second example: the poorly named Operation Liberation of the People (OLP). Convinced Chavistas offer displays of argumentative juggling to justify, on one hand, the attacking of the scum personified by small-scale resellers[fn]Since the end of the 90s, street hawkers exist and sell mostly regulated products. But until now nobody worried much, granted that it represented the means for many families to generate income. The same could be said today of the bachaqueros, and in fact we could assert without being wrong that this is one of the reasons why the country hasn’t imploded [from economic stress], thanks to this manner of generating informal income. [/fn], because otherwise they would become the worst plague yet in the country, tearing it apart, while on the other hand they applaud the (literally) crushing logic of the OLP who, justified or no, take on minor delinquents (whether their crimes relate to regulated products, prohibited substances, or even usurped apartments). Nothing has been done or even vaguely declared against the mafias (civil and military) that monitor the influx of merchandise that leaves and enters the country, whether its weapons, corn flour, toothpaste, or drugs.

What really causes fear in this situation is the absence or progressive disappearance of any kind of sign from the government on behalf of convinced Chavistas. Critique has faded and retreated to corners when political logic and practice is not imposed, where autonomy is not only a dream but rather a reality and necessity, because the state is absent or only present in an erratic manner.

I would like for the same determination of friends who support this reality to be employed without deceit toward discussing government administration. I wish we could see in Caracas spontaneous marches that call for justice to be done against those responsible for bleeding the country (the military, firstly).

Finally, we should recognize the tactic of the Greek strategist Alexander the Great, the hammer of the state to mildly scare wild incursions of the market and reestablish something similar to authority, and the anvil of astuteness of the creating forces of the people to “mark the territory of an emancipatory possibility,” as Emiliano Teran said.

What comes from the people is fundamentally irregular and versatile, but with a potential that many have highlighted. What is sublime in the case of Venezuela, along with other dynamics in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina, is to have made ideas from the left accessible to the masses.

Even so much as the force of this process is to be found in its promises, which are growing ever harder to fulfill, they remain as road maps for a common strategy between popular forces and the government. Even if we regard them as simply a lesser evil, we cannot permit the governments of the progressive wave to be thrown into the trash heaps of history. We have to create the conditions for a repeated battle of ideas and fundamental critique, but without opening the way for worse [representatives] on the basis of fundamentalist criticism, by rejecting repression or idealizing a government that has never existed except in our most unreachable dreams. Even so, the crisis of representativity is inevitable when a political group is institutionalized, and when national resources are disputed over by diverse powers, but we cannot forget that we enter then in a cycle in which the exit may have disastrous consequences. The irony of our time in Latin America is that government are now the ones being attacked, and are sacrificing the same principles that they participated in erecting. In some cases, the good of the people is sacrificed for the good of the people.

In spite of it all, we have to advance with these encumbrances, and not hastily consider the battle lost despite the enemy forces that seem to spring from all sides.

The resistance cannot be institutionalized, but the progressive state can increase its own awareness and pressure itself, and that is what he have left to continue considering, beyond popular uprisings.