Lula Challenges the Hegemonic Narrative on Venezuela

VA columnist Clodovaldo Hernandez examines the discursive conventions used by the right in its attempt to topple the Venezuelan government.
Hernández looks at South America's geopolitical balance following a recent summit in Brasilia. (Venezuelanalysis)

The issue of whether a perverse narrative regarding Venezuela is there or not ended up being the most controversial point at the recent Brasilia summit, where the larger issue of South American reintegration was being discussed. Why did this happen?

One possible answer is that the debates about Venezuela and the political narratives of global hegemonic power have been – and continue to be – crucial in electoral processes in the subcontinent and, as such, important for incumbent presidents.

Let’s start with the one who stirred up the debate: Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva, the host of the event, who received President Nicolás Maduro displaying friendship and respect, sparked controversy when he said that “a narrative” about Venezuela has been woven portraying a legitimate and legal government as a dictatorship, and Maduro as a tyrant who violates human rights. According to Lula, this maneuver had an ultimate objective: recognizing “impostor” (Lula’s exact words) Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s head of state.

As it turns out, the Brazilian president has all the historical authority to be very critical of narratives because he was the victim of one of the most twisted recent ones, which ended up depriving him of his freedom and was an attempted political assassination.

No one can deny Lula’s right to talk about the complex constructions built with the participation of political forces, national public powers, foreign instances, international organizations, allegedly non-governmental organizations, mainstream media, and increasingly influential social networks, all orchestrated by imperialism and its specialized meddling agencies.

In Venezuela, there is a saying that goes as follows: “Don’t come to me with tales, I know stories.” Lula could have used this phrase when talking about the nefarious narratives that the right deploys against progressive leaders. His defense of Maduro was, in a way, a self-defense in which he also embraced other key figures who have suffered attacks, including Cristina Kirchner, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, and even Gustavo Petro, who is beginning to get the venom.

Lula, a figure with global projection, threw this fragmentation grenade of a statement and set everyone in motion, knowing that some would scream loudly.

The Boric paradox

Among the right-wing presidents at the Summit, there were several candidates for a reaction, but only the Uruguayan Luis Lacalle Pou spoke. He did it from the predictable position of a nebulous conservative. Mario Abdo Benítez, the outgoing president of Paraguay, kept a low profile, perhaps because he is in the epilogue of his term. Given his complex internal situation, Ecuador’s Guillermo Lasso did not utter a word, while Dina Boluarte, the discredited de facto President of Peru, wasn’t even invited to the summit.

But then something unexpected happened (although many claim they predicted it): Gabriel Boric, the Chilean president, took on the role that should have been assumed by a proper right-wing leader. Repeating what has been a hostile stance towards Maduro thus far, Boric stated that the human rights violations in Venezuela cannot be merely labeled as a “narrative.”

Why does Boric deny that a global narrative was deployed against the legitimate government of Venezuela?

One important reason is the weight that Venezuela has had – and still has – in Chile, a deeply polarized country that bears the scars of one of the bloodiest dictatorships in Latin American history (which is a lot to say).

Since Chávez’s era, Venezuela and its path toward socialism have been used as a tool to instill fear among the Chilean masses about the risks of a left-wing government. The deliberate and treacherous suffering that the United States inflicted on the Chilean economy (and, with it, the people) to justify the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende created a genuine case of collective post-traumatic stress disorder triggered at the mere mention of Chavismo.

In recent years, with Venezuela becoming the recipient of the same brutal economic warfare recipe prescribed to Chile decades before, the situation on the ground became a reinforcement for the fear-mongering message. And this is one key to the effectiveness of political narratives: they have some connection with facts backed by the voluntary or forced testimonies of ordinary people.

At one point, the “becoming like Venezuela” narrative sustained itself on the Venezuelan migration wave. Boric’s predecessor, Sebastián Piñera, facilitated the entrance of Venezuelans (including undocumented ones) to Chile because he wanted to promote the narrative that the Caribbean country was in a humanitarian crisis due to its “failed” socialist model and not as a result of the global capitalist elite operating to crush the country’s productive apparatus.

The Chilean people, historically manipulated to vote against any left-wing option with the exception of very moderate ones such as Michelle Bachelet, leaned towards Boric after a very intense period of street protests and strong repression by the much-feared carabineros [Chilean police]. However, the fear of socialism remains in the collective “unconsciousness.” Perhaps that is why, from the beginning of his term, the young president has gone a long way to distance himself from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela by using one of the fundamental pillars of the hegemonic narrative: the supposed defense of human rights.

Boric’s actions are not borne out of his desire to involve himself in the affairs of another country. Instead, he hopes to avert that combination of messages, meta-messages, and political discourses (the narrative) deployed against Left governments from turning against him. He is safeguarding himself.

On the other hand, with his behavior, Boric tells the predominantly anti-socialist Chilean people (according to the results of the recent Constituent Assembly consultation) that he does not represent the danger of an Allende-like scenario. It is a sad role for a leader who emerged from the 2019-2020 protests, but predictable realpolitik for someone who began his mandate experiencing two electoral defeats in just one year.

To defend his position, which aligns with that of the United States, Latin American oligarchies, and the global media machinery, Boric must deny that it is a narrative. He thus enters into a paradoxical situation or a vicious circle: he reinforces the narrative whose existence he denies.

The fact that the questioning hails from a progressive president lends credibility to a narrative that has already lost persuasive power when uttered by US officials and the spokespeople of the Latin American and European right. The effect of “the worst wedge comes from the same wood” (another popular saying) may actually work in favor of the narrative in this case.

How much is true, how much is narrative?

One of the doctrinal phrases of old liberal journalism goes as follows: “facts are sacred, opinion is free.” However, things have never been that simple. There has always been a struggle to interpret those sacred facts in one way or another and shape them into a majority opinion throughout history.

That is why those who hold global power never yield an inch when it comes to their ideological apparatus; that is where facts are managed, manipulated, twisted, and contorted to generate the desired opinion.

Narrative is that which allows supposedly universal principles to be applied in some cases and ignored in others.

The Latin American panorama is perfect to illustrate this way of operating: disturbances are labeled “violent” (and even worse, as “terrorist acts”) when they occur in countries with right-wing governments. However, if they happen in nations with left-wing or popular-profile governments, they are called popular uprisings or civil revolutions and their promoters are elevated to the pedestal of democratic leadership.

The difference between these two approaches lies precisely in the narrative.

Waves of street violence broke out in Venezuela in 2014 and 2017, including attacks against state security forces and roadblocks enforced with home-made weapons to prevent civilians from circulating. Firearms and projectiles filled with excrement (popularly known as “puputovs”) were also common.

Media outlets, right-wing governments, international entities, and non-governmental organizations promoted violence while holding Maduro responsible for crimes against humanity.

After 2017, waves of protests shook Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile among other countries then governed by the right, but the interpretation was completely different, favoring the security forces and condemning the protesters.

Does anyone doubt the existence of a factor called “narrative” and its ability to shape things?

Clodovaldo Hernández is a journalist and political analyst with experience in higher education. He won the National Journalism Prize (Opinion category) in 2002. He is the author of the books Reinventario (poetry and short stories) De genios y de figuras (journalistic profiles) and Esa larga, infinita distancia (novel).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.com.