Venezuela remains mired in an unprecedented political and economic crisis that since January has pitted the country’s increasingly authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, against the increasingly hapless leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly—and self-proclaimed interim president—Juan Guaidó. The international community remains split, with the unabashedly bellicose United States, most Latin American nations, and dozens of others around the world embracing Guaidó, while China, Cuba, Turkey, Russia, and other key Venezuelan allies remain in Maduro’s corner. International opinion appears to be shifting away from the hardline U.S. approach, as more countries embrace the efforts of an “international contact group” composed of a range of European and South American countries that seeks negotiations with Maduro and the opposition with the eventual aim of holding free and fair elections. To date the group has made no clear progress.
Months into this high-stakes standoff, things unexpectedly came to a head the day before the opposition’s planned May 1 rallies against Maduro. In an early morning address on April 30, Guaidó, flanked by defectors from Venezuela’s armed forces, as well as his mentor Leopoldo López (who escaped from house arrest in Eastern Caracas early on the morning of the April 30) announced that “Operation Liberty”—which he said represented the “definitive end of the usurpation [of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro]”—was underway. Guaidó claimed that military uprisings were erupting across Venezuela, and urged the rest of the armed forces to join them.
By day’s end, however, after hours of clashes between protesters and government forces, it became clear that Gauidó’s assessment was more aspirational than real: while there were limited defections among its lower and middle ranks, the overwhelming majority of Venezuela’s armed forces remained loyal to Maduro and diligently put down the protests. Meanwhile, the recently liberated López and his family sought shelter in the Spanish Embassy. Guaidó played his strongest card, and had little to show for it.
While the situation remains fluid, it appears that no resolution is likely to come any time soon. Much more likely is Maduro’s further consolidation of authoritarian rule in Venezuela, bolstered by a still-committed militant base, the threat of repression, and the inability of Guaidó and the Venezuelan opposition to build sufficient momentum—either in the streets or within the ranks of the armed forces—to force Maduro’s ouster.
Socialists around the world have struggled to come to terms with the crisis in Venezuela. While most (though not all) agree that the country is experiencing a humanitarian disaster, and while virtually everyone agrees that the Maduro government has made many serious blunders, there is sharp disagreement over the stance international socialists should take.
In some cases, socialists have taken stances consistent with the principle of democratic self-determination. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica, for instance, have simultaneously condemned the Venezuelan government’s record of civil and political rights violations and economic mismanagement as well as the Trump administration’s regime change agenda.
For many on the international left, however, the line has been that any public critique of the Maduro government is tantamount to a betrayal of the basic principles of anti-imperialism, and a tacit endorsement of a bloody coup d’état. This perspective derives from a justified skepticism of the motives of the U.S. government, and a genuine concern that well-meaning socialists will inadvertently strengthen the case for illegal regime change by criticizing the Venezuelan government. Nonetheless, it is predicated on an inaccurate reading of the facts on the ground, and a willingness to sacrifice the basic principles of democratic socialism in defense of regime that is neither truly democratic nor socialist.
Getting the Facts Straight
A common refrain of Maduro’s defenders is that he has only violated the civil and political rights of Venezuelans who have actively plotted illegal and often violent actions against the Venezuelan government. Indeed, the democratic credentials of much of the Venezuelan opposition are weak at best, and many have indeed conspired either to overthrow the Venezuelan government (as in the short-lived coup of April 2002) or incited other acts of violence against the government and its supporters. While individuals charged with these crimes certainly deserve more due process than they have often been afforded by the Venezuelan government, it is perfectly legitimate to investigate and suppress violent forms of dissent.
Yet in recent years the Venezuelan government has waged an increasingly brutal campaign not only against leaders of the traditional opposition with alleged ties to acts of violence, but also against ordinary Venezuelans from the country’s popular sectors and independent labor unions, as well as the government’s left-wing critics. Defending the state against coup-plotters is one thing, but the systematic criminalization of dissent is quite another. The latter is increasingly the norm in Venezuela today.
Another claim marshalled in defense of the Maduro government is that both Maduro and the pro-government National Constituent Assembly that currently serves as Venezuela’s de facto legislature were elected in constitutionally valid, free, and fair elections. In fact, after decisively losing parliamentary elections to the opposition in 2015, in 2017 Maduro created a parallel, extraconstitutional national legislature (the National Constituent Assembly), the members of which were selected based on electoral rules that all but guaranteed a Chavista supermajority. This body, in conjunction with the Venezuelan Supreme Court, subsequently stripped the legitimately elected National Assembly of all its powers.
Turning to the presidential elections of 2018, Maduro’s defenders claim the election was legitimate because there is little hard evidence that vote totals were manipulated or fabricated on election day. While that is true, it provides a decidedly incomplete picture. Unlike all previous presidential contests under Chavismo, in 2018 all of the most important opposition candidates (including those, like Henrique Capriles, who were not implicated in violent protests in 2014 and 2017) were barred from running. Past elections under Chavismo were hardly models of fairness; in previous contests the ruling United Socialist Party heavily utilized state resources in support of Chavista campaign efforts, and state workers were compelled to perform electoral work on behalf of the party. But in none of those elections was the deck stacked so heavily against the opposition that victory was close to impossible.
On the economy, there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that Venezuela is suffering one of the worst crises outside of wartime in world history. Most of the international left pinpoints U.S. sanctions as the principal cause of the crisis. Those sanctions have played a major role in deepening Venezuela’s economic crisis, dramatically restricting the country’s access to much-needed credit and foreign currency reserves. They are affecting ordinary Venezuelans much more severely than the Chavista leaders they were supposed to target, and they deserve our unreserved condemnation.
The roots of Venezuela’s economic crisis, however, predate U.S. sanctions (first imposed in 2017) and lay primarily at the feet of the Maduro government (as well as the government of Hugo Chávez before it). Every government overseeing a low- to middle-income resource dependent economy faces major structural obstacles that constrain its economic performance, especially self-proclaimed socialist governments facing severe geopolitical headwinds. That said, in a counterfactual world where nothing changed except the current Venezuelan government was replaced by a less authoritarian, less corrupt, more pragmatic, and more technically competent socialist or social democratic government, there is little doubt that the economic situation in Venezuelan would be much improved. It is unlikely any government could turn Venezuela into an economic powerhouse during a time of low commodity prices, but there is a lot of space between that and close to the worst economic performance in the history of the world.
Solidarity with Venezuela, Not with the Maduro government
Even if all of this is the case, do the people of Venezuela want international socialists to openly criticize the Maduro government? While a majority of Venezuelans certainly want the U.S. government to remain firmly on the sidelines of Venezuela’s domestic politics, it is not at all true that they reject our acts of solidarity against the Maduro government. In fact, the vast majority of Venezuelans not only have a negative view of Maduro’s governance, but also believe new elections should be held immediately and that he should leave office in the immediate future. This constituency goes way beyond the traditional middle-class opposition, including huge swaths of disillusioned Chavistas from Venezuela’s popular sectors. If we wish to stand in solidarity with the Venezuelan people, we have a responsibility to amplify their voices against authoritarianism and in defense of democracy.
Not only would the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans be in favor of the international left coming out strongly in condemnation of Maduro, but many Venezuelan leftists are seriously concerned that by and large it has not. Some who I have spoken to stress that despite the shortcomings of the Maduro government, the role of international leftists must be to focus on the role of the United States in the crisis, and that criticisms of Maduro play into the United States’ interventionist rhetoric. Others, however, see the international left’s silence, and in some cases explicit support of the Maduro government, as a betrayal of solidarity with those fighting for democracy and socialism in Venezuela that will likely have long-term consequences for the Venezuelan left. As Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander explains:
I think it’s very important . . . not to fall into the trap of saying: ‘Ok, we don’t like Maduro, he’s made some errors, there is some corruption, etc., but at this moment the most critical issue is US imperialism, the need to oppose United States intervention.’ The problem with this is that this fails to recognize the need for solidarity with the Venezuelan population that is suffering the simultaneous impact of an authoritarian, corrupt, repressive government that has destroyed the economy and caused a deep social crisis, and the imperial blockade and threat of military intervention that has made the situation much worse and brought the country to the verge of a civil war. There is a serious problem if the left fails to recognize the fact that the great majority of the population in Venezuela blames Maduro for the dire situation they are facing and wants Maduro out as soon as possible. If this population sees that a significant proportion of the international left continues to back Maduro and continue to identify him as part of the left, they will not, now or in the future, want to do anything with the left.
These socialists urge us to recognize that two things can be true at once: Maduro needs to allow for free and fair elections, and the United States needs to stay the hell out of Venezuela.
Despite the many important and inspiring experiences of local-level radical democracy that continue to exist in Venezuela, which should not be ignored or devalued, Venezuela today is simply not a democracy. And we cannot sacrifice democracy on the assumption that Maduro in power is a necessary condition for the process of socialist transformation in Venezuela. This claim can be challenged on empirical grounds, but democratic socialists must also reject it in principle. The lack of democracy at the heart of the capitalist system is precisely why we call ourselves anti-capitalists. The idea that all individuals have a right to participate with their peers in all areas of life is the motivating principle of socialism. Without democracy there can be no socialism. For democratic socialists, from both a strategic and moral perspective, maintaining democracy is more important than maintaining power.
If new elections are held the opposition may win, and the gains of Chavismo (at least those that have not already slipped away over the last five years) may be lost. Chavista leaders associated with Maduro are totally discredited among the Venezuelan population outside Maduro’s base (roughly 15 to 20 percent of the population), and there do not appear to be any viable alternatives from outside the United Socialist Party who might carry on the positive legacies of Chavismo while breaking with some of its more insidious pathologies. This leaves the neoliberal opposition in a strategically advantageous position, and could end with Juan Guaidó being elected and a National Assembly dominated by sympathetic legislators.
This would be an extremely worrying outcome for Venezuela’s popular sectors, already suffering from years of de facto austerity. The economic recovery plan proposed by the opposition in December 2018 includes extensive privatization and deregulation planks, as well as plans to curtail public subsidies of basic necessities. While major economic rationalization is obviously necessary, the document amounts to a standard neoliberal playbook, and suggests the opposition in power would do everything possible to dismantle Chávez-era social programs and experiments with participatory democracy and communal production.
But as one Venezuelan socialist and lifelong Chavista who is opposed to the Maduro government succinctly put it to me, “that’s democracy.” The Maduro government has performed so poorly that the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans want major change. If, in their desperation, Venezuelans are willing to put their trust in the opposition, their decision has to be respected. In the event the opposition came to power, we as socialists would have an obligation to vigilantly defend the right of Chavistas to participate fully in Venezuelan political life, and denounce any violations of civil or political rights taken by the new government.
Given the shaky democratic track record of many opposition leaders—including Guaidó—such violations would be likely. Yet neither the possibility of neoliberal resurgence nor the fear of opposition repression against Chavistas in a post-Maduro Venezuela provides sufficient justification to defend continued authoritarianism. In the absence of democracy, the population has nothing but the goodwill of unaccountable leaders to ensure its interests are reflected in government policy. This almost never turns out well, especially for the poor, marginalized, and most vulnerable sectors of society.
Taking a gamble on authoritarianism is always a bad idea for the left. Socialists should be on the front-lines of defending democracy and self-determination in Venezuela. This means simultaneously fighting against dangerous and destabilizing actions taken by the Venezuelan opposition and by the United States, as well as supporting the vast majority of the Venezuelan people in their struggle to regain democracy.
Jared Abbott is a PhD candidate in political science at Harvard University and a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America.