On the Venezuelan crisis

With the global fall in oil prices, Venezuela’s fifteen-year experiment in “petrol populism” seems to be winding to a close. Either the regime will collapse in short order, or it will maintain itself through increasingly bloody and repressive measures, as Maduro’s claim to represent the interests of the people grows even more tenuous. George Ciccariello-Maher, a seasoned apologist of Chavismo in the United States, writes in an article for Jacobin that the “enemies” are the ones who are out there “in the streets, burning and looting.” Socialists, he contends, should be supporting the recent state crackdown on the protestors, which has already left 130 or so dead.

Pavel Minorski, a Croatian left communist and trustworthy comrade, comments that “[Ciccariello-Maher’s latest piece] is basic leftism. There is good capitalism and bad capitalism. Good capitalism is run by The People, bad capitalism by (((the elite))). Eventually, of course, people will revolt against good capitalism. But don’t worry, those aren’t The People. They’re malicious, deluded, or both. Here’s how national developmentalism can still win!” For anyone interested, “Dialectics and Difference: Against the ‘Decolonial Turn’,” my polemic against Decolonizing Dialectics by Ciccariello-Maher just came out, and can be read over at the Insurgent Notes website.

Michael Roberts’ analysis of “The Venezuelan Tragedy” paints a much bleaker picture. The numbers are just brutal. “Income poverty,” observes Roberts, “increased from 48% in 2014 to 82% in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Venezuela’s three most prestigious universities.” Chávez, like every other leader who came before him, was content to rake in profits when times were good, i.e. when the price of oil was high, funding ambitious social programs with the profits as part of his wedge electoral strategy. He didn’t bother trying to diversify the country’s production, so when its sole export monocommodity plummeted in value, the whole country went tits up.

Sergio López of Kosmoprolet saw this coming as early as 2009. “21st-century socialism? Charitable kleptocracy! A kleptocracy, indeed, which is steering the country to its next economic and social crisis.” López noted then, at the pinnacle of Chavismo, the popularity of slogans such as “Chávez is the People!” and “President Chávez is a tool of God!” “Postmodern Bonapartism,” as Marco Torres dubbed Bolivarianism in a 2010 piece, is “a bricolage of thirties vintage pop-frontism together with nineties antiglobalization, molded upon sixties developmentalist Third Worldism.”

John Moro, whose blog was mentioned in a previous post, rails against Chávez, heroes, and all “great men”:

The Bolivarian project wasn’t socialist in the first place, but another iteration of what Marx called Bonapartism — the concentration of power into an autocratic but “benevolent” military leader that distributes some of the surplus generated by oil rent to the underclasses in order to secure a power base… We socialists should point out the limits of Chavismo: which are nationalism, career bureaucrats, and the fetishization of “larger-than life” men and the political form of the presidency, which is nothing but a term-limited and sterilized variation of monarchy.

Obviously, as Moro is well aware, “the organized opposition to the Latin American ‘pink tide’ is largely reactionary and loathsome.” But the average worker protesting in the streets is not ideologically committed to the restoration of a capitalist oligarchy dominated by light-skinned managers and businessmen. He or she is just looking for daily provisions and supplies. Protests have broken out even in neighborhoods that used to be strongholds of Chavismo, in the urban barrios of Caracas. To be sure, the working poor are susceptible right now to anti-socialist rhetoric, lured by the promise of a return to relative prosperity, but to paint everyone in the streets as “enemies” is craven and dishonest.

A part of me wishes that Chávez didn’t succumb to colon cancer in March 2013. Not just because it’s an awful way to die, but because his premature death allowed him to go out still near the top of his popularity. Chávez could thus avoid being blamed for social and economic crises that would happen under Maduro’s watch, despite the fact that his own shortsighted policies led directly to the current catastrophe. The biggest irony, in my opinion, is that for all his vaunted anti-imperialist rhetoric, Chávez could thank the disastrous invasion of Iraq for the spike in oil prices that allowed him to bankroll his social programs. Venezuela’s biggest trading partner during this time was the US.

Socialists gain nothing by continuing to defend this bloated and incompetent regime. Even an oil-rich state like Venezuela cannot build “socialism in one country,” as the old Stalinist motto goes. Better to admit now what should have been obvious all along: Bolivarianism was a Revolution In Name Only, or #RINO for short (that acronym is still available, right?).

16 thoughts on “On the Venezuelan crisis

  1. Brilliant, Ross. Venezuela is under attack from the US-backed opposition and you help by sticking the boot in from the (alleged) ‘left’! Do you honestly think things will improve for the average Venezuelan if the Bolivarian revolution here is overthrown?

    • There is no revolution to overthrow, just decrepit oil-rent social democracy (even this is a bit too generous).

      I doubt things will improve either way. Collapse of the Maduro regime will likely bring rollbacks of the social reforms that were previously in place, but there’s no money in most of these programs right now anyway. So it’s not as if their de jure existence is doing any good.

      • While you may be right about the project of Chavismo on the whole, I don’t see how one could condone a removal of Maduro at the behest of the US, under the pressure of sanctions, which will, as near as I can tell, do nothing to improve the situation while empowering some of the worst and most reactionary political elements within Venezuela. Whatever the problems of Chavismo may be, this won’t be the way to resolve them.

        Even decrepit petro populism would in all likelihood be superior to whatever sort of neoliberal shock therapy is waiting in the wings. I get your point, the working class and people living in Venezuela more broadly lose either way, but the tone of this piece really doesn’t seem appropriate at the moment.

      • If you consider revolution as the administration of a government, then a. you could be right about Maduro’s lead, but b. you would be wrong about what revolution can be about, at least in a country where, until Chávez came, there was an electoral regime which concealed a servant-master society, much alike colonial times. This is why most Venezuelans who have come to be aware of their newly acquired citizenship under the Bolivarian Constitution don`t give a damn about orthodox revolutionary analysis. And why it is so difficult for so many analysts to understand why, even under such a diuress as is felt now, they will actively back the Boliviarian process. By the way, you summarize the present stage of the political crisis as “recent state crackdown on the protestors, which has already left 130 or so dead.”? Well, as wise as I can see you are by browsing your blog, let me tell you that when it comes to present day Venezuela, you are pretty naive bait for capitalist media disinformation.

  2. Whatever criticisms can be leveled at Maduro and Chavismo, the severity of the current crisis would not be nearly this bad, were it not for the usual meddling of the U.S.

    Leopoldo Lopez is from one of the richest families in Venezuela and enthusiastically supported the 2002 coup. This guy is up to his eyeballs in violent anti-government actions. GOP strategist Robert Gluck set up “Friends of a Free Venezuela” for free. Since when does the Republican establishment dedicate themselves to paying for democracy especially in other countries? Doesn’t this sound familiar? Another “movement” leader, Lorent Saleh, was caught on video “talking about bombing discos and liquor stores, burning buildings, and bringing in snipers to kill grassroots leaders. ” (http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/27/the-making-of-leopoldo-lopez-democratic-venezuela-opposition/)

    CIA Director has admitted they are involved Venezuela (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/cia-venezuela-crisis-government-mike-pompeo-helping-install-new-remarks-a7859771.html).

    Venezuela has also been attacked by currency manipulation. (http://www.thesleuthjournal.com/venezuelan-economic-crisis-not-socialism/)

    You quote George Ciccariello-Maher but he points out, “the opposition’s undemocratic aspirations come draped in the language of democracy.”

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  5. Venezuela is a mess but is there any doubt that Hugo Chavez tried to use resources for the benefit of the poor? I am not sure whether if Tony Gonzalez or Sam Farber had been the leader of Venezuela, they could have done much better than Chavez. Of course, the real question is why such people have never gained the kind of mass following Chavez enjoyed.

    • I agree that it’s great so many poorer people benefited from the social programs funded by Bolivarianism from oil revenues. Certainly better than what most of the Gulf States do with their profits from oil, building glimmering towers in the desert for the super-wealthy while employing migrant labor for next to nothing under godawful conditions.

  6. “Socialists gain nothing by continuing to defend this bloated and incompetent regime”… Agree 100% with mr. Wolfe in this point. Here in Spain this is seen very clearly with Podemos and the former conections of some of its top members with the Venezuelan government, this was really a gift for the right-wing government. Here we don’t have red scare, we directly have “Venezuelan scare”

  7. This article is a rhetorical ploy, directed against the simplistic views of Ciccariello-Maher and others but not offering anything substantial of its own.

    I doubt you really know much about Venezuela, and if you don’t maybe you should stay silent on matters you have no insights in. Do you even speak Spanish, I wonder?

    As an American citizen, though, you might have used English-language sources to read up on the policies of the US state against Venezuela, as well as the private enterprise through the policy NGO’s. This factor is missing from your article.

    Mere posturing, this.

  8. While one can certainly talk about the limits of Ross’ brief comments on the specifics of the current political crisis – how the roles of the Chavista and opposition have developed, just how much the rightists and other stooges of anti-Chavista elites want to maximise chaos and violence to help bring about a coup or some other end to the ‘Bolivarian’ hegemony, insofar as it continues to exist, and just how appalling it could be if they, this opposition, got their hand on state power – his account of the limits of the current state are not unreasonable. There are real stakes in this current conflict, so I’m not trying to say differences over how to understand it are trivial, but those differences need to be understood precisely in such a broader context.

    So, unless we want to allow opposition to imperial intervention and local reaction to prevent us from actually understanding what has happened and what is happening – congenital limits to anti-imperialist practice, a kind of compulsory mis-recognition of reality which I’m assuming no-one talking here would advocate – it seems worth remembering precisely what the actual content and limits of Bolivarian petro-socialism were – even at its height and not just now, when the fact that it was always a project and strategy within capitalism has led to an not unpredictable impasse.

    I’ve only just begun reading it, but it does seem like Daniel Brian Lavelle’s 2016 PhD dissertation, ‘Petro-Socialism and Agrarianism: Agrarian Reform, Food, and Oil in Chavista Venezuela’, tries to give some sense of how those realities put a limit on actual social change toward ‘socialism’, and even on sustainable, properly ‘social democratic’ capitalist development.

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