The news from Venezuela is grim: A “fall in oil prices, soaring interest rates…have intensified an already deep-rooted recession. The country is being pauperized. It has the highest inflation in Latin America, increasing unemployment and more than 40 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty.” With economic immiseration comes political violence: Over the course of one year, “security forces killed 126 people, 46 in extra-judicial executions, and 28 when they were in police or military custody. Authoritarianism and repression are growing. Of 13,941 arbitrary detentions, 94 percent occurred during anti-crime operations mainly in poor neighborhoods.… Violent death has become a feature of Venezuelan life. On Monday mornings, the newspapers carry a grim roll call of those killed in stabbings and shootings in the city’s slums. The figure often reaches 40 or 50, mostly young, male and poor.”
There are “frequent riots,” the suspension of basic rights, and daily police raids in “poor shanty towns to root out alleged subversives. Rising street crime and violence in Caracas” is skyrocketing. Prisons are a Dantesque nightmare: “More than 30 prisoners were killed in a riot and fire at a jail in central Caracas yesterday.” Earlier, another prison riot protesting conditions led to “more than 100 inmates [being] burned or hacked to death.”
“All this,” writes one reporter—the shortages of basic goods, including medicine; dysfunctional hospitals; a spiraling murder rate; protests and riots; prison massacres, loss of basic rights; political prisoners and state repression; falling oil prices—“makes Venezuela one of the most important economic stories in the Americas at the moment.”
Why, the reporter wanted to know, aren’t the US media paying attention?
Wait. What? Not paying attention? What is she talking about? There is no shortage of reporting on Venezuela’s crisis, with pastoral pundits who preach remedies to exit same, worrying over Caracas while ignoring the ongoing coup in Brazil (which just witnessed an anti-austerity general strike that saw the estimated participation of 40 million workers). Few news consumers in the United States would know that the murder rate in Colombia is ticking up, as right-wing paramilitaries, nervous about the peace deal worked out between the FARC guerrillas and the government, target activists. According to Reuters, last year in Colombia “117 rights activists were killed compared with 105 in 2015, with many murders attributed to shadowy right-wing paramilitary groups furious that Marxist FARC guerrillas have been allowed to join society and form a political party under a historic peace deal.” Venezuela runs nonstop on cable news, topped perhaps only by Trump, Putin, Michael Flynn, and somebody named Carter Page. Writing in TheNew York Times, Mexico’s former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda wants to save Venezuela through diplomatic isolation but feels, alas, that a United States led by Donald Trump is in no moral position to do so.
Well, the reason the grim news from Venezuela recounted above wasn’t obsessively covered in the United States is because it was from 1996, two years before Hugo Chávez was elected president, when the country was governed by a Washington ally.
OK, that’s the easy part of this post: noting the bias in US media and indexing crisis reporting to the general worldview of the State Department. But Venezuelans are today living through an extended period of social and political misery, and, despite the need to always contextualize the catastrophe, Bolivarianism was supposed to be a model of development, a beacon for progressives.
For a while it was, achieving impressive gains in health care, life expectancy, education, and social security; radically expanding political participation, bringing the excluded and marginal into the debate and giving diverse social movements access to political power; and charting a foreign policy independent from Washington. Now that model is in ruins. It’s easy to criticize Chavismo for riding high oil prices. That critique, however accurate, captures only half the story: Chávez, and his cohort of oil diplomats, largely helped create those high oil prices, revitalizing OPEC, affirming Venezuela’s commitment to OPEC production quotas and pricing, and working with non-OPEC energy-producing countries, like Brazil and Mexico, to reverse the neoliberal dream (which when Chávez was first elected, in 1998, was on the point of coming true) of turning petroleum into a pure commodity whose value is set by market demand, to repoliticize oil and use it as an instrument to achieve political objectives.
Chávez’s oil policy was heir to the great vision of the New International Economic Order of the 1970s, which saw high petroleum prices as a way to tax the First World, and then redistribute that revenue through equitable social programs, solidarity, and support for poor energy-importing nations, and an oppositional foreign policy. Thus many of Barack Obama’s energy initiatives, especially when Hillary Clinton was at the State Department, were counterstrikes against this repoliticization of oil: promoting fracking, not just in the United States but worldwide; wooing of Mexico away from Venezuela while promoting the privatization of PEMEX, Mexico’s state-run oil industry; turning Central America into one big biofuel plantation (that’s one of the things the 2009 coup in Honduras was about). It worked. When Chávez died, in early 2013, oil prices collapsed and Venezuela skidded into catastrophe. For good or bad, we will never again witness a political movement that credibly holds up oil as a solution to humanity’s problems.
Shortly after Chávez’s death, an unexpectedly close vote put his successor, Nicolás Maduro, in power. The opposition, made giddy by its unexpectedly strong electoral performance and believing the restoration of their class and race privilege was within reach, returned to its maximalist program of antagonism, launching deadly street protests meant to heighten the contradictions and bring international rebuke. Maduro, for his part, possesses neither Chávez’s petrodollar surplus nor his political skills. As I wrote here in 2003: “Chávez’s charisma, his light touch despite his often rhetorical bombast, his ability to bring some key opponents back into the fold, to make unexpected alliances, helped defuse social tension at key moments. It’s one of the reasons why Venezuela, despite an often excess of extreme rhetoric, didn’t spiral into the kind of violence often associated with other revolutions.” That state of grace has ended.
Maduro has responded to extremists in the opposition by assuming everyone in the opposition is an extremist, presiding over an ineffective and incoherent mix of distributivist carrots and repressive sticks, aimed not so much at consolidating his personal power as at digging in a besieged and out-of-touch revolutionary bureaucracy. The country is locked into an impasse, which might only be broken, many fear, by civil war. As Venezuelan sociologist Atenea Jiménez Lemon notes below, the country threatens to turn into the next Syria.
What is to be done? What follows are the thoughts of an ad-hoc Committee to Save Venezuela, offering both general observations and specific recommendations that differ from those found in our missionary mainstream media.
Venezuela finds itself at a crossroads. For the first time, one can clearly see the possibility of a civil war, promoted by imperialism and its local allies: the Venezuelan and Colombian bourgeoisie. The hidden war against popular and peasant leaders could spread. But there is another way: peace with justice. For this to happen, a number of steps should be taken:
Convene regional elections immediately [note: this is a reference to the election of governors, which was scheduled for last December but delayed; many frontline activists hope to use these these elections to isolate both extremists in the opposition and the madurista elite].
With these elections, the violent factions of the opposition could be isolated. Then there could be dialogue with the less extremist opposition.
Strengthen the articulation of public power, which is currently being undermined [note: “popular power” here is a reference to the Bolivarian ideal of incorporating social movements into governing institutions, a process that frontline activists say is hindered by the Maduro government].
Resolve the political crisis by resolving the economic crisis.
The PSUV [the governing socialist party] should negotiate with those willing to build bridges, not with those who stand opposed to peaceful resolution.
The government should stop persecuting left-wing activists who criticize it.
Initiate a campaign that promotes peace and conflict resolution within the constitutional framework. Those who murder, injure, burn hospitals and terrorize the population must be condemned legally and morally.
The government must understand that there are broad sectors of the population that opposes it, which it needs to include in its policy making. It is not correct to describe every opponent as a terrorist.
We are in a moment of great social fragility, and all national and international effort should be made to avoid a second Syria. There is a lot of false information on the internet, many false everyday rumors. Therefore we need to act with great intelligence and caution when passing on information, in order to avoid violence and to foster dialogue.
The majority of people want peace and social welfare…. They are a source of hope.
Next we hear from Steve Ellner, who has taught economics and political science at the Universidad de Oriento in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, since 1977. Ellner is the author of many books, and is a participating editor of Latin American Perspectives:
Extreme political polarization in Venezuela has taken a heavy toll, including violence that has claimed more than a score of lives in recent days. Both the opposition and the government share a degree of responsibility. The opposition’s actions in their entirety are designed to achieve regime change in spite of the fact that the Chavistas reached power by legitimate means and continue to enjoy a significant degree of popular support. Furthermore, the opposition consistently employs tactics of mass civil disobedience even though these mobilizations are accompanied by the destructive actions of small bands of combatants. The government, for its part, has failed to present definitive dates for the regional elections that have already been delayed by six months. Furthermore, the decision to prohibit the electoral participation of former presidential candidate and governor Henrique Capriles on grounds of accusations of corruption can only be seen as a provocation.
Just like hot spots in the Middle East and elsewhere, extreme polarization in Venezuela originated internally, but was then exacerbated by foreign actors. Specifically, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the US government openly side with the opposition and support all its demands. Their pronouncements only pour gasoline on the fire and make understanding between the two sides all the more unlikely. The international media with its one-sided reporting plays an equally negative role. It has failed to adequately report on actions perpetrated against government supporters and public property that elsewhere would be categorized as acts of terrorism. Furthermore, it supports the claim of opposition leaders that the government, in refusing to allow opposition marches to reach downtown Caracas, is denying the right of protest. In fact, if a massive number of protesters were to reach the vicinity of the presidential palace, violence would very likely break out, as occurred on the day of the coup against Chávez on April 11, 2002. In short, outside actors such as the OAS and the international media, rather than playing a constructive role as is their obligation, are having the opposite effect, namely intensifying polarization.
Naomi Schiller, an ethnographic filmmaker and assistant professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College who has studied community media in Caracas, writes:
It is vital to understand that few poor communities have joined recent opposition protests not because they are too hungry or because they fear government repression, as mainstream media outlets insist. Hunger and fear are undoubtedly real. Yet, the decisive factor undermining popular support for recent protest is the opposition’s anti-poor discourse. Leading opposition forces invoke meritocracy and human rights to defend their traditional class privilege. Many who live in traditional chavista strongholds vehemently reject Maduro and his government’s efforts to control debate about what is to be done. Nevertheless, the opposition continues to represent to them only a return to an unjust social and economic order. Any conversation about the path forward for Venezuela should emphasize not only the importance of procedural democracy, but also economic rights and meaningful popular participation in politics. The Trump administration has no positive role to play in fostering peace and justice in Venezuela.
The AP reports that Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, “unsuccessfully urged OAS members to suspend Venezuela unless general elections were held soon.” Nobody in the major media noticed the irony of his demanding that Venezuela violate its own constitution by cutting short the elected president’s term. Meanwhile in neighboring Brazil, the unelected president’s approval rating has fallen to 4 percent, and a general strike took place on April 28. The OAS/Washington do not get involved. Almagro originally opposed as illegitimate the parliamentary coup that brought in the current Brazilian government, but fell silent after it became clear that Washington supported it. With a major international effort under way to topple the Venezuelan government, it is easy to miss the fact that it is 100 or 1,000 times more dangerous to be a human rights defender or journalist in US allied-countries like Mexico, Colombia, or Honduras than it is in Venezuela. TheNew York Times reports that in Mexico, “more often than drug cartels,” government officials are responsible for the murder and torture of journalists and the impunity that puts Mexico between Afghanistan and Somalia in terms of the danger of practicing journalism. If the Venezuelan government were to be responsible for the killing of even one journalist, it would be a major issue for the US government and its allies, including the media. This is not to say that human rights violations are any more excusable in Venezuela than elsewhere. It’s just that everyone should know why Venezuela is being singled out for regime change, as it has for the past 15 years. And the worst part is that this effort to delegitimize the Venezuelan government makes the dialogue that, e.g., the Vatican has called for much more difficult. But as the large demonstrations on both sides, as well as polling data show, Venezuela is still a polarized country. While there are millions who want the government out now, there are also millions (including the military) who fear a right-wing coup. There must be a negotiated solution.
Much of the global media has presented the situation in Venezuela as a country in the throes of a political and economic crisis where mass movements are in the streets demanding new elections, as the country inches closer and closer to full-fledged dictatorial rule. This rhetoric hides the reality that not much has changed in the polarized world of Venezuelan politics. Those in the streets, as during the 2002 coup attempt, are mostly the middle- and upper-class opposition, whose political demands for new elections do not address the concerns of the majority of the rural and urban poor, who are increasingly suffering from economic hardships. The opposition has still failed to draw these popular sectors into their protests because of their limited demands. Amidst the hype of a Venezuela on the brink of revolt, the images from poor barrios in the east of Caracas show people going about their everyday business, though they are alert to the potential of domestic terrorism like the tear-gas attack by armed opposition gangs on a maternal child hospital in the barrio of El Valle last week.
So how do these poor and barrio social movement leaders see the way forward? Alongside preserving and defending the spaces that have been won such as hospitals, literacy programs, and cooperatives, poor and marginal sectors are seeking an improvement in their economic situation, but are not pushing for a change of government. In the moment, many grassroots social movements are calling for peace. On April 24, a group of community and cultural organizations from the Caracas barrio San Agustín del Sur submitted a petition to the Attorney General’s office asking it to protect the safe passage of all citizens throughout the national territory, in the face of an opposition call for a “Plantón Nacional,” or closure of major public roads. Community radio stations around the country have collaborated in a campaign called “Patriotic Oath,” with producers from different stations across the country recording and broadcasting statements about the need for unity and solidarity. Whether Venezuela can reach a point of stability will depend partly on these community organizations, which have been the backbone of the revolutionary changes that have occurred in the country, and which are continuing to fight for spaces to further their redistributive projects and local organizing.
George Ciccariello-Maher is an associate professor of political science at Drexel University and author of We Created Chávez. His recent book Building the Commune is on Venezuela’s commune movement (in which Jiménez Lemon, above, is involved):
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is far from dead. This bears repeating in a moment when economic crisis and political turmoil have led many to issue preemptive post-mortems. The revolution lives and breathes not despite these twin crises but because it stands opposed to those economic and political structures that fail so spectacularly today. And it lives and breathes because, in the network of communes dispersed across the countryside and the barrios, it offers the sole alternative.
On the economic level, dependence on oil exports and cheap imported goods has plagued Venezuelan development for a century, long before Hugo Chávez, and while the government grasped the problem, it made only partial and contradictory steps toward a solution. The communes—by managing production directly and democratically—aspire toward a sustainable economy where communities produce what they need locally.
Politically, the living, breathing revolution stands in stark contrast to the clash of elites—new and old—that monopolizes headlines, in part because it has always stood in tense relation and often in outright opposition to the bureaucratic and centralized state. By struggling to build a new economy, Venezuela’s comuneras and comuneros are struggling to build a new (non-)state as well.
If the besieged Chavista government survives, this will no doubt be due to the efforts of those grassroots sectors that have saved it so often in the past, and if the past is any guide, those struggles might just unleash a newly combative revolutionary spirit. And if it falls, those same sectors will continue to fight the long war against capitalism and colonialism.
The best hope of stanching Venezuela’s slide is the recommitment of all Venezuelans to the country’s tattered Bolivarian Constitution, which has suffered at the hands of both government and opposition. Its provisions for social participation and Rousseauian ideals of participation, the “civic” or “public powers” as well as “electoral power,” must be made to work. The first step could be taken by the government. Elections are not a matter to be negotiated; the National Electoral Council (CNE) should immediately schedule state and local elections, postponed from last year, for some time late this summer, and it should set a calendar for next year’s presidential elections. The next step is for the government and opposition MUD to agree to convene a commissions of citizen consultation to implement the civic consultation—what the Constitution calls protagonistic democracy—to renovate the judiciary, CNE, and other governance institutions. These commissions must include not just political elites but also, as envisioned under the constitution, leaders of social movements, smaller but influential Bolivarian dissidents (such as Marea Socialista), and more established organizations (unions, religious groups, professional associations, etc.), and they must go beyond simply defining the institutional game of electoral democracy. They will also need to activate popular participation as Venezuela faces the difficult task of reconciling revitalization of its economy and preservation of the inclusive social programs (missions, communal councils, etc.) created in the Chávez era. These tasks need to happen now because there are clear signs that political violence could become communal if the present current slide is not arrested. This difficult process has a better chance of success if the United States refrains from any covert or overt (e.g. sanctions) actions.
Gabriel Hetland is an assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latino studies at the University at Albany, SUNY. He’s been writing about the current crisis in Venezuela for years now, most recently at NACLA, “Why Is Venezuela Spiraling Out of Control?”:
There are no quick or easy solutions to Venezuela’s multidimensional crisis. In some ways it is easier to think about what not to do then to answer the question what is to be done. At the top of the “not to do” list is unilateral US action or multilateral action led by the United States, through, e.g. the OAS. Such actions, whether military or in the form of sanctions, should be roundly and loudly rejected for at least two reasons: (1) the US track record of “saving” other countries is horrendous, to say the least; and (2) such actions reek of hypocrisy, given the strong US support for repressive, essentially nondemocratic regimes in Brazil, Honduras, and Haiti.
The following actions could help resolve Venezuela’s crisis, with the first two aiming more at the political crisis, the third at the socioeconomic crisis, and the fourth at both.
At the moment the primary obstacle to peace is Venezuela is not the government, which certainly deserves criticism, but the escalating violence of the opposition. Since the opposition receives a free pass from the US government and Western mainstream media, progressives and leftists should repeatedly and loudly sound the alarm about the opposition’s campaign of terror, which aims to create conditions in which extralegal regime change will appear inevitable.
Given the high levels of mistrust between the government and the opposition, it is hard to see how Venezuela can overcome its current crisis without a negotiated solution, as Mark Weisbrot argues. The United States and organizations the United States dominates (e.g. the OAS) can play no constructive role. Organizations that could play a constructive role are UNASUR, CELAC, and the Vatican. While past efforts have not succeeded, it may still be worthwhile to try mediation by Leonel Fernández, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and Martín Torrijos, former presidents/prime ministers, respectively, of the Dominican Republic, Spain, and Panama. A key, very challenging task, will be figuring out how to pressure both the opposition and the government to stay at the negotiating table.
Eliminating Venezuela’s byzantine currency system (a key factor generating corruption and shortages), by implementing a free float of the bolívar, remains the most “bang for buck” measure that should be taken to ease, and eventually resolve, Venezuela’s socioeconomic crisis.
Elite-driven technocratic “fixes” will fail to address either the political or socioeconomic crisis. Thus, a key element for resolving either or both is to reinvigorate the popular movement, which is the only force that can hold state officials, opposition leaders, and capital accountable.