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.”
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?).