In the forum:
- Jeffery R. Webber, “State, Bureaucracy, and Rentier Capital: Maduro’s Venezuela in Crisis”
- María Pilar García-Guadilla, “The Limits of Chávez’s Communal State”
- Pablo Stefanoni, “The Implosion of the Bolivarian Revolution”
In January 2019, a new phase of Venezuela’s years-long crisis began. The then relatively obscure head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, claiming that the 2018 presidential elections were illegal and invalid, declared that he was the president of the country according to the Constitution. Nicolás Maduro, who had claimed victory in that election and still held the levers of power, remained unmoved. Guaidó was able to mobilize many in the streets and in foreign capitals. The Latin American countries of the Lima Group, the United States, Canada, Australia, and many European countries recognized him as the lawful president of Venezuela. The Trump administration unsurprisingly endorsed the change; Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who seemed to be guiding the administration’s policy, began tweeting pictures of a bloodied Muammar Qaddafi and an imprisoned Manuel Noriega amid calls for Maduro to step down.
In the months since, Guaidó’s bid for leadership seems to have stalled. He called for the military to join him in an uprising last April and got little response. The vast majority of the armed forces and the state apparatus has remained with Maduro. The Trump administration grew frustrated that an easy victory had not materialized. In January 2020, Guaidó was physically blocked from entering the National Assembly, yelling at a member of the National Guard who stood in his way: “You don’t decide who gets to enter!” Though he and his supporters eventually burst through and held a vote, Guaidó now holds two disputed positions simultaneously: head of the National Assembly and of the country itself. Guaidó then departed for an international tour that included an appearance at the State of the Union speech in February 2020, where he received bipartisan applause. But the visit also contributed to the impression that his political base lies outside of Venezuela. With an approval rating in Venezuela of 38 percent (higher than Maduro’s approximately 10 percent, but down more than twenty points from its peak), his dependence on being the beneficiary of regime change efforts from the United States has been a vulnerability since the beginning.
Venezuela’s presidential crisis has produced antagonistic camps who see these matters in incompatible terms. Figures like Rubio and Elliott Abrams apply an anti-totalitarian framework to the situation and conclude that they are on the side of right, working to dislodge a dictator. (Abrams, Trump’s special envoy on Venezuela, was a major figure in the Reagan administration’s illegal wars in Central America in the 1980s, which he viewed in similar terms.) For the political right, Venezuela is experiencing a crisis of socialism, plain and simple.
On the other hand, many on the international left, starting from an anti-imperialist framework, see the United States trying to remove another left-wing government in Latin America and have rallied against such actions. But is it possible to do this without defending the government of Maduro? Anti-imperialism must remain a core principle of the left; but Venezuela presents a powerful conundrum, for it is clear that Maduro takes advantage of the left’s anti-imperial commitments to cast himself in the role of a twenty-first-century Salvador Allende. That allows Maduro to push aside his share of responsibility for economic crisis, domestic repression, official corruption, and entanglement with criminal networks. Some on the left—but by no means all—have made excuses for Maduro’s government, by attributing current conditions to outside forces to a far greater degree than can be justified by the basic timeline of events. What kind of response, then, can the left offer to Venezuela?
This is a question that has divided opinion not just in the last year, but in the last decades. Less than a decade ago, Venezuela was frequently defended by many on the left as an inspirational model, the first country to declare itself socialist since the fall of the Soviet Union. The anti-imperialism of Hugo Chávez aligned with the global left’s mood during the actively imperial George W. Bush administration. (Many chuckled along when Chávez spoke at the United Nations in 2006, a day after Bush had done so, and declared “Yesterday, the devil came here . . . and it still smells of sulfur.”) When mainstream coverage frequently described Chávez as authoritarian or dictatorial, analysis on the left frequently pushed back, pointing to his electoral victories. Poverty and inequality really were falling, the opposition was befuddled and ineffective, Chávez really was widely admired, and a renewal of a moribund system was absolutely necessary.
Furthermore, while Chávez undeniably demonstrated some authoritarian characteristics, the left argued that what mattered most about what was happening in Venezuela was at the grassroots level. When Chávez died in 2013, for example, Greg Grandin wrote candidly in the Nation: “I’m what they call a useful idiot when it comes to Hugo Chávez, if only because rank-and-file social organizations that to me seem worthy of support in Venezuela continued to support him until the end.” Grandin acknowledged the personal and administrative deficits of Chávez, but it was the social movements on the ground that “lead to the conclusion that Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere.”
Over the course of the Chávez presidency, more and more Venezuelan intellectuals distanced themselves from his government and adopted critical positions. They were largely replaced by ideological supporters from outside of Venezuela, who necessarily did not experience the reality of the country on a daily basis. One foreign correspondent stationed in Caracas privately confessed to me that visitors from their country would visit Venezuela, see the problems, and then return home only to deny them. The government devoted significant resources to creating a narrative of its own success, for both domestic and international consumption.
After the death of Chávez, the economic and social crisis accelerated. Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by more than half in the past five years. (By way of comparison, the U.S. economy shrank 30 percent during the Great Depression, and the Cuban economy shrank 33 percent in the four years after the collapse of its principal patron, the Soviet Union.) Farmers lack fuel to harvest crops and get them to market. While the country remains physically dangerous, even property crime is down: people lack cash, and shops lack goods. “Since the currency is worth nothing, it makes no sense to rob banks,” notes one veteran crime reporter.
Along with the economic collapse, there has been an increase in political repression. A UN report, authored by the former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet—whose father was tortured by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and died of a heart attack in 1974—has reported on the use of torture, extrajudicial killings by state security forces numbering in the thousands, excessive force deployed against protesters, and a general environment of intimidation of opponents of the government. Many of the techniques used to punish political prisoners, including suffocation, simulated drowning, and sexual violence, were also used by Pinochet’s government. “Few people file complaints for fear of reprisals and lack of trust in the justice system,” the report demonstrates.
Though 2019 saw a minor level of economic stabilization in Caracas, with goods returning to store shelves alongside a de facto dollarization of the economy, the countryside has been abandoned. Poor and rural Venezuelans bear the brunt of the crisis, and millions have abandoned the country, creating a regional refugee issue. Almost everyone acknowledges that Maduro’s government has been disastrous; a minority still prefers it to available alternatives. But if the left is going to be rebuilt in Venezuela, it will have to be done independent of a discredited and deeply unpopular government. It will be done through community organizations that predated Chavismo and that will outlast it. It will have to be done in a context that assures public safety and allows free and fair elections, making possible a reconfiguration of the political order that marginalizes undemocratic elements of current coalitions. And those outside of the country need to support the people engaged in that project rather than the state or the imperial interests that claim it.
This forum compiles the views of three thinkers, starting from positions on the left, about how the left should approach about the current crisis in Venezuela, and how it should move forward.
Jeffery R. Webber gives a detailed accounting of the class configuration of the Maduro government, arguing against a facile account that pits the upper-class opposition against the government of the people. It is question of different factions of elite fighting for control of the state, argues Webber, and as a result the crisis is better understood as one of rentier-capitalism than of socialism.
María Pilar García-Guadilla, an expert on Venezuela’s commune movement, looks at the experience of popular participation and communal economic organization. Though the Chavista project tried to sponsor communes, it also sought to control them. Within Chavismo, there was both a horizontal project, building grassroots organizations, and a vertical one, tying them to the state. In the end, the latter tendency has proved overwhelming. State desire for control has weakened the movement, creating competition for state resources where solidarity should guide action.
Pablo Stefanoni considers the international dimensions of the crisis, warning that denialism about what is taking place in Venezuela produces a regional problem for the left. The right can paper over its own democratic deficits by scaremongering about Venezuela, and people are correct to fear repeating that experience. This dynamic contributed to the coup in Bolivia in 2019, where the decision of Evo Morales to seek a fourth term in office through elections marked by reported irregularities led to his resignation under military pressure. The government that has replaced him represents a terrifying swing to the right.
The reconstruction of the left can only begin with a forthright accounting of where governments that claim to be a part of the left have failed. Leftists don’t need to accept the critical frameworks of those who don’t share our values, but we must develop our own.
Patrick Iber is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America, published by Harvard University Press in 2015.