Edgardo Lander: Venezuela Must Face its Civilizational Crisis

Sociologist Edgardo Lander argues Venezuela is facing a “civilizational crisis” brought on by its dependence on oil revenue.

Professor Edgardo Lander is a sociologist and political commentator from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. He is the author of numerous books on neoliberalism, and economics and society in Latin America. He is also a member of the Amsterdam based Transnational Institute, which seeks to promote democracy and social justice. In this interview with Prodavinci’s Hugo Prieto, Lander argues Venezuela is facing a “civilizational crisis” brought on by its dependence on oil revenue.
Let’s start with an obvious question. What is your political evaluation in this moment?
Well, it’s obvious that we are in a deep crisis at this moment. I believe that it’s important not only to think about the current situation– next year, possible solutions, if there is a transition or not– but it’s also useful to recognize that the political crisis is mounted on top of a much deeper crisis which is the crisis of the accumulation regime, of a pattern of organization of the entire society whose foundation is oil rent. You can’t address the debate regarding possible solutions to the political crisis– whether there will be a referendum or not, if it is held in 2016 or not– if you are not simultaneously thinking about where this society is going. What meaning would a change of government have if the basic conditions of organization of society are not being questioned and the logic remains the same? Since it’s no longer possible to maintain the economy on the basis of oil rents, are we now going to opt for mining rents? Are we going to bring large investments to the [Orinoco] Mining Arc and continue as a society this same logic of permanent assault on nature and devastation of the eco-system, and all so that the state has sufficient resources to maintain its legitimacy on the basis of clientelist policies? While these things are not questioned, I think to talk about the political crisis is to willfully blind ourselves to the lack of direction our society is facing.
We could ask ourselves: what is coming next? A restoration? Is that it? Can this be reduced to an ellipsis of Chavismo? At this point, I don’t want to be pejorative with what existed in Venezuela before, because I think it’s a question of debate, that democracy and even social organization was superior to what there is currently. But I do have to say that it was not sufficient. What is your vision?
To think about what there was, you have to situate yourself in the time period, from ’58 onwards. One thing was the first 20 years, when there was effectively public policies that permitted people to access education, health, there was important social mobility. There were changes in society. But from the middle of the decade of the ‘70s, a very marked process of decline began. During the second mandate of Pérez, there was the late– with respect to Latin America– application of neoliberal adjustment that led to the deterioration of the population’s conditions of life, an increase of statistically measured poverty and a growing divorce between the parties of popular origin (Democratic Action, principally)– parties that had grassroots organizational structures, a party office in every town– and their bases, in a process that saw parties become corrupt, electoral machines. There was a rupture between the popular Venezuelan classes who were now disenchanted and institutionalized politics. The Caracazo is the expression of that immense discontent. But without direction, without a solution. I don’t think it’s desirable to return to that. But on the other hand, there’s the imaginary that we are rich and the state will provide. It’s something that’s deeply implanted in this society, among other things because of 100 years of oil extraction.
You don’t think that it would be absolutely novel, even revolutionary, for Fernando Coronil’s book The Magic State to be massively reedited in Venezuela? I ask because there are all of the keys to the relationship between oil rentierism and the Venezuelan political system. This phenomenon is presented there as an open fracture to the bone in Venezuelan society. Yet, nothing changes, however.
Even the naturalness in which things that everyone says like “we have to get out of rentierism” get incorporated into political discourse. It’s a sort of obligatory cliché, but it doesn’t have any repercussions. Nothing comes out of it, no concrete proposals. For example: in both the opposition and Chavismo’s electoral program for the 2012 and 2013 elections (due to the death of Chávez), there was nothing, nothing at all in common, except for one thing: They both pledged to bring oil production from 3 million barrels per day to 6 million by 2019 according to this logic that we are a rich country and the state is going to have a lot of money. The truth is this is not called into question. There are solid reasons warning that we are not in the midst of a periodic fall in the price of oil, but rather we are at a qualitatively different point in our relationship with the question of oil for two reasons. First, if a few years ago there was much talk of “peak oil” (an influential theory about the long-term depletion of oil, which emphasizes that the factor limiting oil extraction is the energy required and not its economic cost). It turns out that that theory is not correct. Technological transformations permit the extraction of oil from the depths of the Arctic, from the pre-sal in Brazil, from the Canadian tar sands, fracking not only in United States but in other countries as well. All this means that today there is an overabundance of oil and that’s not going to change. There’s a second very important structural factor. The dangers represented by climate change make it absolutely indispensable, for the survival of humanity on the planet, that the overwhelming part of oil already detected, explored, and quantified stay below ground. This puts us in another situation. For all of the oil that there is in Venezuela, the majority of that oil is not going to be able to be tapped. Reality has changed, the world has changed, and there’s a new energy matrix in the rich countries, but we haven’t changed absolutely anything. So, are we going to remain like the oil, below ground. We are in a moment of total crisis of the civilizational model. It’s not just the energy model. The over-utilization of the planet’s carrying capacity in its entirety– in terms of water, forests, fish, and everything else– is exceeding the planet Earth’s capacity to replenish itself. So, our survival together with the possibility of constructing a more egalitarian, equitable, and inclusive society depends on our recognition of this reality and our reorienting in terms of what kind of dignified life we aspire to live. It has to be under other conditions. To pretend that the consumption patterns of the countries of the global North can be imitated in the global South is the logic that is functioning all of the time: we say we aspire to live as in the United States or in Europe [as in the example of] the highly accelerated growth of Chinese consumption, which will only lead us to destruction.
Recognizing this is extremely complex, because it forms part of the logic of capitalism, of the logic of growth without end, of the logic of 500 years of modernity, as well as the logic of political systems whose legitimacy is grounded on the continual growth of GDP and the clientelist capacity of the state. There are two many forces of inertia that point in this direction. But this direction leads to collective suicide. If this is not incorporated into our thinking in Latin America and Venezuela, we are simply ignoring that reality.
But let’s come back to the issue of democracy and the ellipsis of Chavismo. Certainly, there was a regression that began in the middle of the ‘70s, that is quantifiable, measurable, politically contrastable, because that was what led us to Chávez, no? But in the beginning of the [Puntofijo] democracy, the greatest concern, the principal objective was stability and Chávez introduced on the scene the issue of participation, the issue of popular sovereignty. But what we are yearning for now is a little bit of stability. I don’t know if Edgardo Lander dreams, day or night, of living in a country whose stability allows him to confront a daily life, less troubling, less hazardous.
Obviously, the daily life of Venezuelans today is extraordinarily difficult. We experience a sensation of permanent insecurity. It’s not just physical insecurity that is present for Venezuelans in the day to day– you don’t know when someone leaves the house if they will return, that phrase, “please call me when you arrive” is a thing that is implanted, and it’s terrible. The suppression of public space as a place to meet, the shortening of the day– after a certain time, you don’t go out– is obviously an impoverishment of life and if you add to that this absolutely complex dimension that has to do with shortages and inflation, life becomes unbearable. To have a sensation of normality is an aspiration that cuts across Venezuelan society.
Yes, we are trapped in a very deep crisis, that has to do with oil, with the viability of the Venezuelan economy, with the great social dilemmas. But we are also submerged in a crisis that has to do with power conflicts, with the recall referendum. There is a naked struggle for power, but there is no collation of processes, of proposals. It’s curious that the only point of convergence [between Chavismo and the opposition] is 6 million barrels of oil produced per day. Without a minimum of political stability, none of this can be faced.
It’s very difficult to achieve political stability in a supposedly rich society in transition towards recognizing the really existing production levels. A fact, courtesy of the economist Asdrúbal Baptista: without oil rents, the size of the Venezuelan economy is similar to Chile’s, but we have a population of 30 million and they have 10 million. Venezuela, by far, does not produce enough to feed itself; the imported component is absolutely too high for it to produce anything, and this extraordinarily complicates the situation. And if you add to that the imaginary [ideal] that cut across the projects of the Fourth Republic, but also the Bolivarian Constitution, which is nothing more than a European social welfare state– which doesn’t even exist any more in Europe– that is, a society where everyone has access to education, healthcare, social security, elevated consumption levels. In Venezuela, this imaginary [ideal] was fed by oil. We must realize that we are not in a momentary economic crisis, because temporarily the prices of oil fell, but rather that our society is founded on top of a fiction that the price of oil was going to rise indefinitely, above 100 dollars, and this is a structural characteristic of Venezuelan society. That non-oil imports dropped from $80 billion dollars to $15 billion means that society is changing profoundly. This inevitably creates conditions of instability that don’t have the possibility of being resolved politically nor institutionally, because if new elections are held and a MUD government comes to power, the structural conditions are the same.
The conflict is here to stay. In Venezuela, there’s a series of pending adjustments. There are state services– electricity, telephones, transport– whose cost has no relation with real production in this economy, nor with the exchange rate of the so-called DICOM dollar* used for many imports.
Those adjustments inevitably have to take place. The problem is how. Will they be negotiated democratically, will they be carried out in some equitable way, in which there is a possibility that everyone pays and receives her part in a democratic process? Or is there going to be a policy of obliging the population to pay higher fees for state services tomorrow? Because if the latter is the case, obviously this policy will not lead to stability, but rather permanent protest.
This has fundamentally to do with oil rentierism?
It has to do with that. But the government’s solution is– since the possibility of continuing with this logic of oil rentierism is closing– we are going to proceed to a great mega-project that is the [Orinoco] Mining Arc. We are going to bring massive injections of capital, and this is going to let us live off the mining rentierism, without questioning the logic of the benefactor-state, the logic of legitimacy propped up by the capacity of the state to respond the population’s expectations, without recognizing the situation that we’re in. I think we are at an extremely critical conjuncture in the sense that if we don’t comprehend as a society what petroleum has done to us, what petroleum did to the Maracaibo Lake, we are allowing decisions to be taken in our name that are going to affect how Venezuela is going to be in the next century.
I don’t know if the recall referendum is being proposed as a means of solving the problems of Venezuelan society, which are enormously complex dilemmas. But the sensation is that the Chavista project failed in its governmental administration, and as an elector, one theoretically has the possibility to give the opportunity to other political forces who don’t bear responsibility for what has occurred over the last 18 years. How do you see the recall referendum from this perspective? 
I understand perfectly that in Venezuelan society today there is an extraordinarily high rejection of the government administration, the most recent polls point to 80 percent. It’s obvious that there is, among an important proportion of society, a sensation that this failed. How do you interpret this? There are interpretations that the failure is of the Maduro government, saving the legacy of Chávez. There are different points of view, but there isn’t the slightest doubt that the current government is being rejected by the majority of the population. It’s a government that is inefficient, it’s a government that is corrupt, and, moreover, it’s increasingly authoritarian. So, the aspiration of the people is to get out of this. And not necessarily out of preference for another political option that is talking about the real problems. Simply, people are fed up. There is an almost magical notion, “we are going to get out of the crisis and then we’ll see”. But obviously society has reached the limit in which the continuation of this government is intolerable.
The problem is if the constitutionally established mechanisms are going to be appealed to, or if they are simply void.
What the constitution outlines is if an important sector of the population considers that there are reasons to submit the president to an evaluation and the procedure is followed for a recall referendum– the 20% of signatures, etc., etc.– society has the possibility of evaluating the administration. The fact that you have a recall referendum doesn’t mean that you revoke the [president’s] mandate. You hold the evaluation and the vote may be for or against. That’s not predetermined. It’s a democratic game, the people have the right to decide. Obviously, this government has taken the decision to block the recall referendum.
Because it knows it’s going to lose?
The recall referendum is not an easy thing. First, you have to collect almost 4 million signatures (20% of the electorate), and when it’s held, it’s not just about winning, but rather you have to win more than 7.5 million votes [more than President Maduro won in 2013]. That’s not an easy challenge. Now, if the government is systematically opposing and blocking the possibility [of the referendum], it’s because they have the polls at hand and they know they would lose. Because the other reaction could have been that of Chávez in the last [recall] referendum [in 2004]: “Let’s go forward with the referendum and begin to react politically.” Because that’s one of the things that I believe characterizes the current government is that it has increasingly replaced political action with state action. That is, in lieu of having the capacity of organizing public policies of legitimization, of acting, confronting [the opposition] on the strictly political field, it’s exerting the authoritarian power of the state. That’s what it’s doing.
Are you talking clearly about repression?
Yes, I am speaking of repression, and that’s not a way of doing politics. That’s replacing politics with “I have the power, and therefore I decide”.
He [Chávez] who won elections and did politics die? What do we do? What does Chavismo do? What is left? 
Some of the things that the government has declared as a response to the demand for a recall referendum are really delirious. For example, Elías Jaua affirmed that “the recall is to revoke oligarchic governments, not people’s governments”. So, the government decides what is a people’s government and what is an oligarchic government, and since this is a people’s government, there’s no referendum. These are absolutely implausible arguments. An absolute disregard for the basic notion that supposedly the people is sovereign and has the right to decide. It’s simply kicking over the table and saying, “We are staying here at all costs.”
That tends to happen when you appeal to a syllogism.
Effectively. What the constitution envisions is that the people have that right and the government goes about systematically blocking it. Something similar is occurring with the elections of governors, which is not something that is held or not, according to the preference of the CNE. The gubernatorial terms are exhaustively established in the constitution. When the term ends, there have to be elections that allow their replacement. Not holding gubernatorial elections is to once again enter a de facto state, a situation in which the fundamental functioning of the democratic structure of the state– which is nothing less than that exercised by representatives elected by the population– is being disregarded.
You said that not realizing a recall referendum is to enter into a de facto state. You argue the same if this occurs with the election of governors. Is the government going to play that card?
In fact they are playing it, because supposedly the gubernatorial elections would have to be held at the latest in December. And there is not the slightest signal that this process is being organized.
What would the international community make of this? Would Venezuela continue to be a valid interlocutor in international organisms? What is going to happen to this ambition?
The Venezuelan government is immersed in a process of increasing international isolation. In creating integration mechanisms like UNASUR, CELAC, PetroCaribe, the Venezuelan government has faced the very strong opposition of the United States. It hasn’t been a solely discursive opposition either. Obviously, they supported the April 2002 coup. The Obama decree brands Venezuela a severe threat to US security. In the region, there has been a strong shift to the right, legitimate in the case of Argentina, with the airs of a coup in the case of Brazil. Venezuela is practically being expelled from MERCOSUR. It hasn’t adopted a series of regulations in four years, and obviously it’s not going to adopt them between now and December. Practically it’s going to be left out of that integration mechanism. So, there’s growing isolation. There’s the investigation of the UN Human Rights Council and the ongoing protests, because the government won’t authorize the presence of its officials in order to know what’s happening. The government, with its improvisation and arrogance with which it’s exercising its power, is losing recognition and disregarding the implications of what it’s doing. These implications are not only national, but also international. This growing isolation has costs, and therefore can’t go on for a long time.
An unknown is the role the military factor could play.
The military is always something of a black box. You never know what is happening in the armed forces. But, from the things that are coming out via different channels, I believe that there is a growing discontent. On the one hand, the military world is experiencing the same things as the rest of the population (insecurity, inflation, scarcity), as is made clear by that information that there are colonels working as taxi drivers in their free time. Military personnel are part of national life and face the same difficulties. That idea that there was solid military backing for the government now doesn’t match reality. At what point this will be expressed in clear organic divisions, of who is for or against a possible rupture in the constitutional order or a coup is very difficult to know, because the internal functioning of the armed forces is always conspiratorial. Until it occurs, no one knows who’s involved and who’s not. But it’s pretty clear, I think, that there won’t be a self-coup by Maduro with military support. That seems to me a hypothesis that can be ruled out, because if Maduro were to propose it, that would lead to, at the least, a deep division of the armed forces.
How would the refusal of a recall referendum affect the leftist forces in Venezuela?
From the point of view of popular movements that aspire to a more just, more equal, more democratic society, for those who believe in the possibility and necessity of another world, the prolongation of this government is the prolongation of a long process of exhaustion. The popular sectors that were politicized and organized themselves during these years don’t have any reason to continue bearing the burden of a government that is not only inefficient but extraordinarily corrupt. To prolong the presidency of Maduro is to contribute to the liquidation of any dreams that another world is possible, implanting in the Venezuelan people the idea that nothing can change and that public [ownership] – as neoliberalism has affirmed for so long – is necessarily inefficient and corrupt. The Maduro government seems to have left behind any pretension of democracy and is more interested in preserving its positions of power and economic privileges, no matter the cost for the Venezuelan popular movements.
I’d like to conclude as I began, with the obvious. What do you think is going to happen if there’s no recall referendum?
I think we will enter a situation of deepening crisis. We will move effectively to a situation of de facto government, among other things, because [the government] is ignoring a fundamental constitutional right, that it’s the people’s right to decide under the conditions outlined in the constitution. The international isolation will be growing. I believe that the most radical right-wing factions that have been more or less contained by the more or less social-democratic sections of the MUD will break out, because then there wouldn’t be any arguments left [to continue playing the democratic game]. The possibility of entering violent situations of diverse nature will increase. And this would lead to a tremendously dangerous situation, because this society, among other things, has a quantity of arms, spread out among the population, that is extremely vast. I don’t see a civil war on the horizon, but the fact that it’s a possibility that’s being talked about is absolutely terrifying. 
*In March, the Venezuelan government announced changes to its currency exchange regime, introducing a floating official rate known as DICOM as a well as a protected rate known as DIPRO fixed at 10 bolivars per dollar that is used for essential imports. As of September 27, the Dicom rate is at 654.19 bolivars per dollar.
Translated, edited, and abridged by venezuelanalysis.com.