Venezuela in the Continental Labyrinth: A Conversation with Amilcar Figueroa

A revolutionary militant and historian talks about the balance of forces in Latin America and Venezuela’s current situation.

By Amilcar Figueroa and Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis
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Amilcar Figueroa. (Archive)
Amilcar Figueroa. (Archive)

In the ‘70s, Amilcar Figueroa was part of the insurgent Party of the Venezuelan Revolution (PRV), which split off from the Venezuelan Communist Party and is widely credited with developing the ideology of Bolivarianism that influenced President Hugo Chávez. A committed internationalist, Figueroa worked with El Salvador’s FMLN (El Salvador) in the ‘80s and, more recently, was honored with a US Treasury Department sanction for his support of the Colombian guerrilla. Figueroa was president of the Latin American Parliament (PARLATINO) between 2006 and 2008. As a historian, he has written several books including El Salvador: Su historia y sus luchas (Ocean Sur, 2009) and Chávez: la permanente búsqueda creadora (Trinchera, 2013). In this interview with Venezuelanalysis, we asked him to explain the Bolivarian Process in the current continental context.

Recently, Colombia entered NATO and soon Ivan Duque, an ultraconservative close to former president Alvaro Uribe, will become the country’s new head of state. Can you analyze the consequences of this, both on the continental level and specifically for Venezuela?

The triumph of Ivan Duque must be situated, just like the Venezuelan situation, in the complex panorama of the Latin American situation, which unfolds in the context of an overarching struggle between reform and counter-reform, revolution and counterrevolution. Moreover, all this push and pull must be understood in the context of the United States’ recolonizing offensive.

Regarding Colombia, it’s clear that the most reactionary right has long been in control of the state. The Colombian state was reactionary, anti-popular and pro-imperialist with Alvaro Uribe, with Juan Manuel Santos, and it will be so with Ivan Duque. The differences between the three leaders are subtle.

Obviously, for reasons that must be examined with precision, the Santos government facilitated – or rather allowed – the conversations and the peace dialogue in Havana. As is well known, the outcome of the dialogues was the incorporation of the FARC into electoral politics. But let’s not be fooled: the Santos government was a warmongering one, wielding constant violence and repression against the popular movement.

The issue now is whether the Duque government will recognize the Havana agreements, which were already being cast aside by sectors of the Colombian establishment and were being systematically broken by the Colombian state even under Santos’s presidency.

It’s true that the peace so desired by the Colombian people scored some important successes with the Havana agreements, but the overall situation of violence and social injustice remains in place. Now that Duque, a representative of the most retrograde sector of Colombian politics, has taken center stage, we are likely to see an even more complete rollback of the peace agreements. That, in turn, could send the Colombian nation back into an overt conflict of large dimensions.

Will Duque’s presidency alter the relations of the Colombian government vis-a-vis Venezuela?

Things are not going to change much: Duque, Santos and Uribe share the same views regarding geopolitics. The latter two represented a continental vanguard in their anti-Bolivarian (and anti-Venezuelan) project, and Duque will continue to be part of this drive. It is not, in the end, a question of individuals but of the Colombian state, which has long been in the service of US interests.

The incorporation of Colombia into NATO (an issue that, by the way, had been brewing for a while) further threatens peace in the continent. For Venezuela, this is quite serious, since it reinforces the offensive against its government.

In the last few years, Venezuelans have repeatedly experienced the consequences of Colombia’s being the US’s beachhead on the continent. Colombia joining NATO was the logical step after installing seven US bases in its territory in 2009 and making additional agreements (less public but disclosed) between the US military and Colombia that turn Colombian territory into a potential platform for US Southern Command’s military actions.

However, we should keep in mind that in the June 17 elections more than eight million Colombians rejected Duque and also said no to war; they did so by voting for Gustavo Petro. Those eight million votes do not even express all the dissent, since the electoral system in Colombia is highly problematic. This means that the parliament is not going to be absolutely submissive to Duque’s project. They won’t give him a blank check, neither for the reactionary establishment’s agenda regarding Colombia’s internal politics nor its agenda regarding Venezuela.

It is evident and worrisome that so many people point the finger at Colombia to explain all of Venezuela’s problems. According to this way of thinking, everything bad – from violence to smuggling – is caused by Colombia. Could you tell us something about this?

Leaving aside national chauvinism, which is surely a problem in Venezuela, the spilling over of paramilitary practices from Colombia to Venezuela is real and a very serious concern. It endangers spaces of popular organization.

As far as smuggling is concerned, there has always been an illegal market on the Colombia-Venezuela frontier. It only exists because there is complicity on both sides of the border and from both states. Smuggling is a practice that has a direct relation with private appropriation and accumulation of wealth in a lumpen or mafioso context.

Latin America is in a process of political regression and the Bolivarian Process’ leadership generally espouses a kind of “realist” reformism which erodes the original revolutionary project. Can you talk to us about the relationship between the overall continental regression and the Venezuelan leadership’s tepidness?

The reactionary counteroffensive taking place in the continent must be examined with care and precision. It began in 2009 with the coup d’etat in Honduras, and from then on we have seen imperialist interests advancing in a series of big steps. This led to a new balance of forces in the continent. In Venezuela, things began to change with the September 2010 parliamentary elections, in which we lost the popular vote. Whether people acknowledge it or not, that event initiated an internal shift. Then, in 2014, there was a real turning point in the Bolivarian Process.

That March, negotiations began between key representatives of Bolivarian Government and the bourgeoisie. The most powerful capitalist in Venezuela, Lorenzo Mendoza, became the public spokesperson for “production,” and the government made tremendous concessions to the sector that he represented. The new balance of forces coupled with the fascist right’s violent emergence in the 2014 guarimbas was what immediately triggered the negotiations. However, it was the financial boycott and the war on different fronts against Venezuela that caused the Bolivarian leadership to assume that backing off on revolutionary goals was the only way to maintain control of the government.

The death or even assassination of Chavez – who had an impressive capacity to find creative (and popular) ways out of difficult situations – has had an enormous impact on the revolutionary process. Henceforth, with an unfavorable correlation of forces, reformist positions became hegemonic within the government. Furthermore, this revolutionary to reformist shift is not confined to Venezuela. I believe that, as a whole, the continental left’s leadership assumes that there are no conditions to advance. Their analysis fails to take into account that a profound capitalist crisis of global dimensions spawns tremendous violence and enormous suffering, thus creating exceptional conditions for an anti-systemic struggle. On the other hand, the Bolivarian Process' leadership (and that of the continental left) assumes that capitalism is very strong. As a consequence, to avoid social confrontation, they think that changes can only be small and gradual.

How would you characterize the Bolivarian government today?

When Chavez was leading the revolution there was a constant creative search that proposed profound reforms. He opened a path of deep revolutionary transformations. But after his death, and when the correlation of forces became unfavorable, much of the left and its leadership assumed an attitude of class reconciliation. With this shift, the Bolivarian Process abandoned its radical character and began sliding towards a Keynesian model and a social protectionist project. For example, there are many discourses in which Nicolas Maduro calls himself “the protector of the people.” In other words, the government’s objective now is not that people take power and transform the social and economic structures. No, it is rather to generate social welfare policies from above.

Of course, this is not the whole story. Those in power do not constitute a perfect and unified bloc. However, there is no question that reformist positions are the most common ones in our political leadership.

How can we imagine a “left-solution” to Venezuela’s current crisis?

To imagine renewing the strategic path towards a revolutionary horizon with mass participation has much to do with making advances, taking spaces, and developing concrete work from a class-based perspective.

Working people must take on many tasks. The proletariat in this stage has to accumulate forces. That is because – whatever our aspirations and critical analysis of the situation – it’s impossible to do anything without organization. No matter how much imperialism has advanced on the continent and reformism has spread in the country, we need to develop a conception that allows new political referents to emerge: leaders who will take up working people’s revolutionary goals.

Thus, our tasks include building an overarching movement that consolidates the spaces that the popular resistance movement has created. This would be a movement influenced by Chavez’s proposal of popular power, the commune and workers’ councils. All this has to be consolidated to defend what has already been achieved at the same time as the great objectives of the revolution are revived. Simultaneously, there needs to be a process of political education focused on the historical revolutionary process and on bringing back to the foreground the desires that were unleashed by Chavez, which are latent in much of the Venezuelan population.

The truth is that most of the people of Venezuela do not want to return to the past and they aspire to build a society of equals.