The State of the Left in Latin America: A Disillusioned Revolution in Venezuela

Gabriel Hetland and George Ciccariello-Maher debate the state of the Bolivarian revolution at Left Forum.


Read part one of the panel here.

In a recent article for NACLA, Professor Gabriel Hetland engaged with a question that, for many supporters and former supporters – of the Bolivarian revolution has become increasingly difficult to contend with: is there merit to the argument that Venezuela has become more authoritarian? After 15 years of defending the Bolivarian revolution against slander and coordinated opposition campaigns of delegitimation and regime change, this question reflects the disillusionment and gravity of the crises at hand. But the current conjecture begs a nuanced analysis that acknowledges how far the Bolivarian Revolution has strayed from its original ideals since social movements brought Hugo Chávez to power in 1999. You can read his piece here.

How—and why— has leadership under Nicolás Maduro, amidst a crash in oil prices and skyrocketing violence— turned to more repressive measures to hold onto power as they lose legitimacy in the polls and in the public eye? George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University and author of Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela, argues that, instead of authoritarianism, we should be concerned with the ‘exhaustion’ (desgaste) of the Bolivarian process and the weakening of the productive dynamic that has existed for a decade between social movements and the government.

In the following analysis, part two of a panel discussion on the state of the left in Latin America, adapted from a panel sponsored by NACLA and Jacobin Magazine on June 2, 2017, Hetland and Ciccariello-Maher grapple with these difficult questions. Is there a way forward for the Boliviarian revolution, and, more broadly, an opening for a left alternative?Moreover, what legacy will Venezuela leave for left struggles in the future?

Gabriel Hetland:

For over a decade critics have called the Venezuelan government authoritarian. Until recently, there was nothing to back that up— or very little. The government repeatedly won clean elections, often by very large majorities of up to 26 percent, as in 2006, and with very high and rising voter turnout, which peaked at 81 percent in 2012. And the reason for this electoral success was simple— Venezuelans, particularly those from the popular sectors, benefited tremendously from policies that dramatically reduced poverty and inequality.

In fact, recently Venezuela became the most equal country in Latin America. This was a significant and laudable achievement. The Bolivarian processes accomplished this while boosting economic growth and fostering a significant, if quite uneven, process of popular empowerment across the country.

So if the argument that Venezuela was authoritarian had no merit in the past, I think unfortunately today it has some merit. But I want to qualify that by saying that allegations that Venezuela has turned into a full-scale totalitarian regime have no merit— the government still allows protests to take place, and there’s still an electoral calendar happening.

A series of actions had led leftists around the world, including myself, to condemn what we’re characterizing as “creeping authoritarianism.” There are a few developments I want to highlight in making this particular assessment.

First, in October of last year, the government abruptly suspended a recall referendum process after dragging its feet for months. There was a lot to criticize about the opposition’s actions with respect to the recall referendum— they waited for many months before they even called it, and even then it wasn’t really clear how into it they actually were. But I think the government’s decision to suspend it didn’t have a solid constitutional basis.

There were claims of widespread fraud. But even if you accept the claim that 57,000 out of 1.8 million signatures were fraudulent, that’s a tiny fraction of the number of people who signed. The government suspended it anyway, despite clear evidence that well over a million and a half people did sign in favor of the referendum.

Second, and most significantly, the government indefinitely suspended regional elections slated for last December. This is a really big deal. One of the things that Hugo Chávez famously said was that Venezuela’s process was different from the Soviet Union’s because Venezuela has elections. You can debate the electoral process, but elections are a huge characteristic of the Bolivarian road to socialism. The government has rescheduled these elections for this coming December, which I think is a very good step, but it’s complicated by the controversial and, in my view, not entirely legitimate calling of a new constituent assembly.

Third, and as many of you probably know, in late March of this year the Supreme Court issued a controversial decree that effectively dissolved the National Assembly. Now, there’s a lot to criticize about the National Assembly. A number of the measures they took were clearly unconstitutional— they wanted to just snap their fingers and grant amnesty to all so-called political prisoners, some of whom had engaged in very violent actions, for example.

So I think there’s a little more room for debate about whether or not this action was constitutional. But Maduro’s own attorney general, Luisa Ortega, called it a constitutional breach, and I agree essentially with that criticism. Also, Maduro, whether or not he agreed with it personally, pushed the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, which they did a few days after it happened.

Fourth, in April Henrique Capriles— the presidential candidate of the opposition in 2012 and 2013, and not a wonderful guy, by the way— was prohibited from participating in elections for the next fifteen years on pretty dubious and unjustifiable grounds.

Basically, he was accused of engaging in acts of corruption. This flies in the face of evidence that hundreds of government officials have been engaged in acts of corruption with no consequences. It’s true that there have been some accountability proceedings for individual officials, but nothing at all for most of them.

And finally, Maduro’s convocation of a new Constituent Assembly has been widely criticized, including by some in the grassroots Chavista sector. The two main critiques are that Maduro didn’t submit this proposal to a referendum and that the sectoral representation in gerrymandered districts unduly favored voters sympathetic to the government.

So taken all together, I myself can’t find another word to describe this besides “creeping authoritarianism,” and, frankly, I think if you try to explain it away you start to sound like Sean Spicer. However there’s a debate about these actions: even if they’re authoritarian, are they justified?

There are two arguments that can be put forward on this point. I don’t agree with either of them, but I think we need to debate them a little bit.

The first has a little more credibility. It points to the illegal and violent actions of the opposition, which has shown little concern for constitutionality or human rights or life itself in its own actions. The opposition has demonstrated its own disdain for the democratic process with calls for military coups, for foreign intervention, for Maduro to resign, et cetera. There have also been brutal acts against black and brown men, especially, and other people who look Chavista in Venezuela— setting them on fire, for example. There have been galvanized wires strung across intersections that have decapitated people. Plenty of public buildings have been burned.

To be absolutely clear: this behavior is abhorrent and needs to be condemned by anybody who cares about Venezuela, or Latin America, or democracy, full stop. There’s no excuse whatsoever.

So, the argument goes, even if the government has been unconstitutional or is demonstrating some kind of authoritarianism, we shouldn’t criticize that, because it’s justified as legitimate efforts to defend a government that’s under siege. I don’t think this argument can be totally dismissed. There’s no question that the government is under siege, and has been for a long time, by a violent opposition that’s funded and loudly supported by the United States government, Democrats and Republicans alike. It makes sense that the government should be granted some leeway to defend itself. I think some of the restrictions on protest make sense. I think arresting and prosecuting violent protesters absolutely makes sense.

Unfortunately, I think many of the actions I described earlier, and in particular the timeline during which they took place, don’t support the idea that they were justified. For example, back in October, when the recall referendum and the regional elections were suspended, the government was under much less pressure than it has been at other points in time.

The second argument is that the government is basically engaging in what amounts to revolutionary democracy. This is basically Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat.” You could say, “We’re getting rid of bourgeois freedoms for our class enemy because they’re not respecting the constitution or engaging in peaceful opposition, but we’re doing that in the name of a radical democracy for our supporters as part of a general move towards socialism.” So then the question we have to answer becomes: has the Venezuelan government been doing this? Absolutely not.

The Venezuelan government over the last year— in fact, over the last several years— has become incredibly incompetent in managing of the economy. It has also been reaching out to international and domestic capitalists. The government has even signed deals with multinational corporations to open the country to mining.

The government hasn’t imposed austerity directly, but it has done it indirectly by not fixing the currency crisis. This is a government that has effectively abandoned the country, abandoned the poor, abandoned the popular sectors. That means it’s hard to see these recent actions as anything other than a desperate attempt by a government that is increasingly unaccountable, increasingly inept, and increasingly unpopular to stay in power by any means and to protect itself from accountability.

That’s the easy part, so to speak, in terms of the analysis.

Then, how the heck should the Left in Venezuela and outside position itself in relation to all this? I think right now the priority needs to be protecting popular sector people, especially Chavistas. They have legitimate concerns for their safety. Anyone who looks Chavista— and this generally means anybody who is black or brown or appears poor—has a legitimate fear about staying alive as they go about their ordinary lives in Venezuela at the present moment.

So providing whatever protection we can is really crucial. This means relentlessly criticizing the opposition, saying every chance we get that their actions are reprehensible, violent, illegal, and cannot be supported.

I think in the months to come, the Left in Venezuela is going to spend a lot of time doing that, as they should. However, in the medium and long term, I think many of the questions we discussed regarding Bolivia and Ecuador also need to be addressed in Venezuela. The way I see it, there are are three major questions:

First, figuring out a viable strategy for moving away from a hyper-dependency on oil. Chávez talked about doing this all the time, but the oil sector, as a percentage of state income, actually increased dramatically under his administration. It was 67 percent of export earning when Chavez came into office and then 96 percent when he died.

Second, we need to figure out a more coherent way to move toward socialism. Right now, there have socialist and capitalist and statist elements of the Venezuelan economy, but they’re not coherently planned and they don’t work together. If anything, socialist elements generally serve to bolster or prop up corrupt capitalist sectors.

Third, we must figure out how to strengthen community and social power vis a vis the state and capital. This is also a crucial step.

I’ll end by saying that joining with the opposition is clearly not the answer. But, in the short term, international leftists should encourage a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s current crisis, because of the simple fact the government does deserve some blame for getting into the current mess.

I think the current situation is threatening to turn into a bloody, prolonged civil war, the results of which could be truly tragic. So facilitating dialogue in search of a negotiated solution— certainly not a US intervention, certainly not any sort of military solution whatsoever, not OAS actions either (I don’t think that organization has any sort of legitimacy) —but some sort of peaceful, negotiated dialogue… that’s what needs to happen in Venezuela.

Obviously, much, much easier said than done.

George Ciccariello-Maher:

I’d like to put this discussion in context by thinking about what the Pink Tide has meant historically, and how it has functioned.

We’re talking about a regional attempt to push back aggressive neoliberal reforms, which were first imposed at gunpoint, shoved down the throats of Latin Americans, at the beginning of the 1970s. What we’ve seen is the emergence of popular rebellions, which then propelled leftist leaders into power. Once in power, these leaders had to develop various relationships with those movements, which has allowed leftist governments to function in conjunction with (and harnessed to) popular struggles. But all this has taken place in very uneven ways.

I think what explains the radicalism of the Bolivarian process in Venezuela is precisely the fact that the relationship with social movements was so tight for so long. But when you move across the spectrum, you see a lot of variation in other countries.

On one end of the spectrum, you have Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, and on the other end places like Chile, where so-called Pink Tide governments have had little to no relationship—or even a directly oppositional relationship— to the movements.

Now, I say that in part to understand what has broken down in Venezuela, what has broken down in Ecuador, and even what has broken down in Bolivia, in certain ways. For me, that’s the point of the whole question. I mean, I think the question of authoritarianism is interesting, but the real question is what kind of authoritarianism, and what is it trying to accomplish. Although, I do agree with your assessment of what it’s not accomplishing, Gabriel.

But the real question is precisely what happened in this powerful connection between movements and the government, and can anything be done to re-establish that kind of relationship.

We all know the basic story of the degeneration, I think. Chavez dies. Oil prices tank. The currency system enters into a crisis that is not dealt with by the government—something that would have been relatively easy to do about four years ago, but unfortunately a kind of defensive pragmatism on the part of the government prevented that from happening.

As all these things are happening, there is a dramatic decline in the quality of living for many poor Venezuelans, many chavistas, to the point where they are still supporting the government, at the very least defensively, but simply don’t have the time or the energy or the fighting spirit that they had a decade ago. The willingness to not only defend the government but to go on the offensive and say, ‘okay, this is the kind of government we really want; here’s a government that we can push in the directions that we want them to move’— that has all but disappeared.

This has everything to do with what was touched on earlier, about the commodity crisis and the question the oil in Venezuela. Everything to do with the fact that in Venezuela, there’s an oil economy, an economy so dependent on oil. That was true long before Chavismo— we’re talking about centuries of perversion of development as a result of oil. This has led to persistent problems—for example, most food is imported, while very little is produced.

Pushing back on that is very, very difficult. Chavismo had an idea of what it would mean to build a sustainable Venezuelan national economy, and in fits and starts it contributed to building that. But then we saw that vision decline under the incentives of high oil prices.

As a result of the collapse of the oil prices and the nonproduction of domestic goods, you have a situation where people are trying to figure out where their next meal will come from. People are losing weight. It’s really astonishing to see what’s happening.

The problems in this moment point directly toward what movements themselves offer. And here I’m talking about the communes — in particular, the idea of local people not only directly democratic managing political life, but also coming together to manage production. The failure of the government to rely on and to lean on and to throw their weight toward these local efforts to develop and build a local economy have everything to do with the weaknesses that are being experienced today.

Not only on a productive level—in terms of lack of resources, the need to import food, etc—but also with regards to the decline in movement organization, people are now talking about desgaste, the exhaustion of the political process, it’s inability to maintain the fighting spirit it needs to move forwards.

Regenerating that is very hard. It takes moments of conflict and rupture and radical breaks, and we may see some of those coming in the future.

Gabriel Hetland teaches at the University of Albany and has written about Venezuelan politics for The Nation, Jacobin, Qualitative Sociology and Latin American Perspectives.

George Ciccariello-Maher is an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University and currently visiting researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.