This article is part of a forum on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.
On January 30, 2005, in the Gigantinho stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Hugo Chávez explained the necessity of socialism. Wearing his characteristic red shirt, the Venezuelan leader said:
To deny rights to the people is the way to barbarism, capitalism is barbarism. With each passing day I am more persuaded [between] capitalism and socialism. . . . I don’t have the slightest doubt. It is necessary, many intellectuals of the world have said and continue saying, to transcend capitalism, but I add . . . that we must transcend capitalism with socialism.
These words distantly recalled the declaration of the “socialist character” of the Cuban Revolution, pronounced by Fidel Castro in April 1961 amid calls to resist imperialist aggression. Venezuela had not been invaded, but Chavismo extracted a potent dose of political mystique from its victory over the coup d’etat of 2002, which had been supported by the local oligarchy and the United States (as well as the bosses’ strike and work stoppage at Petróleos de Venezuela [PDVSA] of 2002–2003. which was a huge blow to the country’s economy).
Seated in front of Chávez, however, were activists rather than soldiers. They had gathered for the World Social Forum, an organization of left parties and social movements mobilized against capital and in favor of a change in the balance of forces at a global scale. In his speech, Chávez asked, “What kind of democracy? It is not the democracy that Mister Superman [one of Chávez’s nicknames for George W. Bush] wants to impose on us from Washington, no, that is not democracy.” But under Chavismo, what type of democracy would replace and surpass liberal democracy? And what would differentiate this “socialism of the twenty-first century” from the experience of actually existing socialism and the “people’s democracies” of the twentieth century in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Cuba? Answers to these questions were less forthcoming.
When Chávez delivered this speech, the Pink Tide was near its highest mark. Néstor Kirchner of Argentina and Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil were in power, while Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, and the enigmatic Manuel Zelaya of Honduras would soon arrive. Venezuela seemed like the hub around which spokes of other national-popular or democratic-left governments could be placed.
But in the end, “socialism of the twenty-first century,” which at its beginnings contained the promise of a necessary renovation of the left following the decline of twentieth-century socialism, was unable to overcome its limitations. The Bolivarian Revolution, which seemed at one point like the engine behind all the forces transforming Latin America, was becoming increasingly inefficient and non-pluralistic. The militarist elements that it contained since the beginning ended up capturing the political process that had begun with Chávez’s electoral triumph in 1998. Venezuela no longer inspired the continental lefts but weighed them down, with the right able to summon specters of “Venezuelanization” in each country where progressive forces had the possibility of triumph. As the economist Manuel Sutherland wrote,
In this unfortunate panorama, Venezuela constitutes the best “argument” for the most retrograde right. In any media setting, they take advantage of the situation to frighten their fellow citizens with questions like: “Do you want socialism? Go to Venezuela and see the poverty! You want change? Look how another revolution can destroy a prosperous country! Sensible analysts affirm that socialist policies ruined the country and that the solution is an ultra-liberal reversal of the revolution.”
Facing this situation, the regional lefts lacked the political and theoretical tools to take account of what was happening. There are some exceptions, like the Frente Amplio of Uruguay, which developed more critical views of Chavismo, or the PT of Brazil, but the arrest of Lula da Silva and the arrival of the extreme right to power seems to have provoked a withdrawal to more defensive positions, including on the matter of Venezuela. And there have been dissenting opinions among certain Marxist groups and the more progressive currents within liberalism. However, within the mainstream of Pink Tide groups, such as the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) of Bolivia, the discourse of the Chávez era has not been particularly open to a critical reevaluation. Bolivia under Morales was far different from Venezuela under Chavismo, but Evo Morales shared some non-pluralistic views of power, leading him to seek re-election again and again. This helped trigger a political crisis that resulted in a coup d’etat and a conservative and repressive government led by Senator Jeanine Áñez.
Much of what had once made Venezuela an attractive model was deeply contradictory. The Venezuelan process combined diverse forms of popular empowerment with ultra-charismatic leadership; redistribution of oil wealth that involved bureaucratic-military cliques sacking the resources of the state; communal democracy from below with authoritarian forms from above; a discourse of socialist planning with very limited capacity for public management. Most salient, of course, is an economic decline since the death of Chávez in 2013 that lead to a fall in GDP of more than 50 percent under Nicolás Maduro and inflation higher than 130,000 percent in 2018, according to official data released after a long period of silence.
The Latin American lefts used to read—and many still read—Venezuela through the fences built around Cuba since the 1960s. That reading absolves Venezuela’s “oil socialism”—as Chávez called it in 2007—for any self-imposed political blunders, or for the deterioration of Venezuelan society. In the anti-liberalism that is dominant in the regional left, there is a tendency to minimize any questions about democracy while emphasizing a “campist” overdetermination of geopolitical variables in the analysis of the national reality.
In this way, anti-imperialism becomes disconnected from its emancipatory potential. A narrative about “popular power” becomes a way of covering up democratic deficits and abundant violations of human rights by the repressive forces of the state. What Claudia Hilb has called the “Cuban silence” of much of the left—in Latin America and beyond—became a “Venezuelan silence.”
This left discourse has multiple means of transmission. Beyond media like the state-sponsored TV network Telesur, the Bolivarian Revolution has, over the years, organized many events (as the Cuban government did in its moment) that have helped to concentrate an intellectual mass available for all sorts of pronouncements of solidarity with Venezuela. Some of these events were organized from within embassies, others more independently, but in general they went about constructing a discourse about Venezuela that stops at the 2002 coup, rather than examining the paradoxes of Bolivarianism and ongoing developments in the political situation.
Today it is impossible to think of the cleavage that splits Venezuela as a transparent confrontation between left and right or between the people and the oligarchy. But among much of the regional left, the depth and multidimensional nature of the crisis is underestimated, as is the political and moral degradation of the Bolivarian elite, which continues to repeat clichés like “the opposition is worse” and “the problems are the U.S. sanctions.” Attacks on the rule of law and the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 are minimized; the National Constituent Assembly acts as a super-constitutional power without counterweights, a de facto power that now legitimates whatever measures the government puts before it.
This does not mean that there are no threats of imperial aggression or interference. But because anti-imperialist discourse in Latin America serves short-term political purposes, the latter-day defenders of Chavismo have little interest in studying the political dynamics and concrete geostrategic interests behind really existing empire. It is also true that among the Venezuelan opposition there are sectors financed by the United States, anticommunist killers of Cold War vintage, racist anti-populists, and retrograde elitists. But these facts call for deeper thinking about the Venezuelan reality that sacrifices neither anti-imperialism nor democracy. Even if Maduro has emerged victorious in his battle against Juan Guaidó, what kind of future can Venezuela hope for? What energy does the Bolivarian Revolution have to bring into being Maduro’s promises for a new beginning for the country?
Without a more creative and active left, the region risks an even further shift into the hands of the right. In the last meeting of the Forum of Sao Paulo, which brings together left parties and organizations across Latin America, its executive secretary, Mónica Valente, said that the group’s twenty-fourth meeting could “have the same historic importance as when the Berlin Wall fell in the 1990s.” She was not referring specifically to Venezuela, but to the turn to the right across Latin America. But if a regional Berlin Wall can be described, is it linked much more directly to the implosion of the Bolivarian Revolution, which occurred in the first country that declared itself socialist after 1989. The evaluation of this experience is essential for any political and theoretical renovation of the Latin American lefts.
Pablo Stefanoni is the editor-in-chief of Nueva Sociedad and a member of the Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Cultura de Izquierdas in Argentina (CeDInCI).