On April 22, Lisa Duggan convened a conversation between Gabriel Hetland and George Ciccariello-Maher, moderated by Macarena Gómez-Barris, at New York University’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. The participants have edited their remarks to present here.
Thinking with Venezuela’s Revolutionary Process and Crisis: Imperialism, Extractivism, and the Politics of Sex and Gender
Recent events in Venezuela and Venezuela’s political, social, and humanitarian crisis seem to have confused the US political Left. Such events have been difficult to sort through for many reasons, including how US empire works to erase the memory of the conditions that produced the current political and economic crisis in the first place. Yet thinking with Venezuela is key in this time of shifting political alliances, the dismantling of welfare states, and the transition to authoritarianism in many parts of the world. How do we think about Venezuela’s revolutionary process given the growing humanitarian crisis? What kinds of concerns are left out of the dominant English press in relation to Venezuelan social movements and autonomous and feminist struggles? What dimensions of revolution should continue to be considered if most Venezuelans’ daily lives are unsustainable? Addressing such questions gives US-based scholars and activists more tools for understanding what is really happening on the ground. Hearing and dialoguing—with specific and textured answers—begins the process of fomenting transnational critical solidarities.
We know that Venezuela was once a “wealthy nation,” a country that was touted as a success story in the hemisphere for its shining architecture and high UN development index genie coefficient ratio. Yet, like many nations that suffer from the resource burden of extractive and dependent economies, oil has not led only to wealth, but also to dramatic racial, gender, and social inequalities. Oil dependency profoundly shaped the path of Venezuela’s democracy in the twentieth century, including with the rise of Chavismo in the 1990s, most recently becoming the backdrop for US petroleum embargoes. Of course, the question of US empire in Venezuela raises the question of the longer history of US empire in the region. In the case of Chile, it reminds us of Henry Kissinger famously saying in 1973—of Salvador Allende’s socialist path—“I’m going to make the economy scream.” Through sanctions, the US imperial state made it virtually impossible for the socialist economy led by Salvador Allende to progress. Shortly after, the US-backed Pinochet military coup facilitated the rise of global neoliberalism. All that to say: the question of economic sanctions looms large in the Western hemispheric imaginary, where Venezuela’s current situation and Trump’s big stick policies seems like an echo chamber in relation to how our histories have been violently delimited by US imperialism.
What motivated Lisa Duggan to organize and me to moderate this panel was the need to address this question: where are the women, the queers, and the trans-people in Venezuela’s revolutionary imaginary and its aftermath? As we know, concerns about bodies, gender, and sexuality often fall out of the normative politics of the nation state. (On the logics of Venezuelan modernity in relation to gender and questions of sex, race, class, and nation see Marcia Ochoa’s excellent ethnography Queen for a Day.) Absenting gendered and sexed material realities has in fact been key to the normalization of a late capitalist path in the Americas, both within and beyond Pink Tide governments and throughout their successes and failures in the region. Normative national politics are always undercut and troubled by the presence of women, queer people, and trans-feminist movements. (For an elaborated discussion of the normativity of political models, see Beyond the Pink Tide.)
We might ask at this time, what is left of the Bolivarian revolution that inspired many and also engendered enemies of the Venezuelan elite? What were in fact its gender/sex politics? (For a good background essay on this topic, see Sara Motta’s “We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: The Feminization of Resistance in Venezuela.”) Article 88 of Venezuela’s national constitution is important because it addressed housework and women’s reproductive role by showing that female social reproduction generates value and wealth. Granting social security to homemakers, as Venezuela did in its revised constitution, is a significant gain in this regard. Further, the 2007 law that addressed the right to have a life free of violence continues to be a progressive law, as does the 2012 Organic Law of Labor and Workers that guarantees maternity leave and childcare rights. However, in Venezuela there are currently no same-sex marriage laws, and trans rights are nonexistent. And of course there is the persistent structural problem of gendered violence that has never been fully addressed. Even if we do not reach decisive answers about questions of gender and sexuality in relation to our global political moment, and in particular in relation to Venezuela, these questions certainly continue to inform our critical and transnational solidarity imaginaries.
We also want to consider what is now a massive Venezuelan diaspora, which of course has its own race-class-gender-sex character to it, especially in relation to who stays and who goes, always activities of unequal sorting and stratification. The topic of the Venezuela diaspora and the new processes of racialization of Venezuelans throughout the Americas present a host of important challenges. This double displacement of Venezuelan migrants in a time of new forms of authoritarianism and xenophobia, as well as new processes of racialization, will become a central question for scholars and activists in the coming years.
We are fortunate to hear from Gabriel Hetland and George Ciccariello-Maher. Both scholar-activists have extensive public intellectual engagement on these topics. To dialogue with them allows for a deeper discussion of Venezuela’s recent history and the context of the current political crisis. Again, the purpose of this event is to work to gain insight about the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis and its causes and to center our discussion on the main questions: What is to be done? What can we do?
The Crisis in Venezuela
The key question we’ve been charged to speak about is solidarity. How do we act in solidarity with Venezuela’s popular movements and popular sectors? This is a really hard question that keeps many of us up at night. It’s a much harder question than it was six to seven years ago, when it was easy to say solidarity means that the US should back off. Then, solidarity with Venezuela meant solidarity with the government, and with revolutionary movements standing with the government. Today solidarity is a lot harder to think about, and different concerns have to be kept in mind.
To start, I’ll discuss two competing narratives that are circulating widely and are flawed in certain ways. I’ll advance a different narrative, which I call a “messy” analysis of Venezuela’s crisis.
These two narratives were illustrated vividly on a Monday night in February, when I went to two events on Venezuela. The first was at NYU and featured several mainstream critics of Chávez and Maduro. Their analysis was quite clear and un-messy: the crisis is the complete fault of the government; Venezuela’s been a mess for twenty years; what we’re seeing now is the chronicle of a crisis foretold.
The other event was a solidarity gathering at the People’s Forum in New York, hosted by Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Jorge Arreaza, and it included a number of prominent leftists, including Amy Goodman, Vijay Prashad, Greg Wilpert, and Medea Benjamin. This event had a completely different tenor. Arreaza’s analysis was: Venezuela’s crisis is completely the US’s fault; this is a revolutionary government under siege and still doing a very good job; and “there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.” I don’t think everyone there agreed with all of this, but this was Arreaza’s take.
Neither of these two narratives captures the complexity and messiness of what’s actually happening in Venezuela. It’s important to acknowledge just how bad the crisis is. There is a genuine humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and not acknowledging this is a problem.
Venezuela’s economy has utterly collapsed. In the last five to six years the economy has shrunk by over 50 percent. Forecasts say it will have shrunk by over 60 percent by the end of this year. There’s been triple-digit inflation since 2015 and quadruple-digit inflation the last several years. Venezuela is now experiencing unmitigated, devastating hyperinflation. For years, the International Monetary Fund inaccurately predicted ridiculous rates of inflation in Venezuela. But even Mark Weisbrot, a leftist economist known for his sympathy for Chavismo, now acknowledges that “inflation is probably over 1 million percent annually.”
The situation is out of control. There are estimates that poverty is at 80 to 90 percent, though it’s hard to accurately know the rate, since the government has not released statistical data for years. According to the UN, 3.4 million people have left Venezuela in recent years. There is a refugee crisis. Refugees have encountered xenophobia in other countries, including Colombia, which previously sent millions of migrants to Venezuela.
There’s also a major political crisis. The most recent phase of this crisis started when opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself president on January 23, 2019. This happened in very close coordination with the US, according to the Wall Street Journal. The US then imposed debilitating oil sanctions on Venezuela, which are undoubtedly having an extremely severe impact, though it’s difficult to figure out the precise degree to which the crisis is due to US actions versus other factors.
Let me step back and address the first narrative, which sees the crisis as inevitable. This narrative must be countered for three reasons. First, it’s empirically wrong. Second, it’s part of a larger anti-socialist project directed at Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and anyone dubbed a “socialist” in the US. This project is also part of the right’s return in Latin America, e.g. in Brazil and Argentina. Right now the Venezuelan case seems to perfectly fit this narrative, which is a reason we have to push back. Third, we have to think about the consequences this narrative can have within Venezuela, not only now, but in the future. Chavismo is already being demonized; e.g., people on Twitter call for its obliteration as a political force. If there’s a transition regime, Chavistas could be under even more threat. So we have to reject the inevitability narrative, which feeds into this.
I’ll now share how I “fell in love with Venezuela” when I first visited in 2007. It was an amazing place to be. The country wasn’t free of contradictions. There were lots of challenges. But it was undergoing a genuine revolutionary transformation in the sense Trotsky talks about, of the masses directly interfering in historical events. Trotsky also talks about revolution as “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” You could see this happening in Venezuela in 2007 and after. It felt nourishing to be in a place really showing that another world is possible. It was not just propaganda. This was actually happening, as we can see in a number of ways.
There are impressive statistics. There was a tremendous reduction in inequality. By 2012 the UN called Venezuela the most equal country in Latin America. From 2003-2011 there was a tremendous reduction in poverty, from 62 percent to 32 percent. Extreme poverty fell 71 percent. Unemployment was halved. Child malnutrition declined about 40 percent. School enrollment rose. University graduation rates doubled. The number of pensioners quadrupled. Key sectors of the economy, including social services, education, basic goods, housing, and utilities, were partially decommodified through state subsidies, price controls, and direct state provisioning. There was uneven movement towards “socialism of the 21st century.” Something amazing, which I hadn’t thought possible in the 1990s, was that millions of people proudly identified as socialists. Millions thought about what it meant to envision and try to create a world beyond capitalism. This included thinking about (more than achieving) moving beyond oil dependency, beyond extractivism, beyond all the legacies of colonialism in Latin America and globally. Venezuela’s solidarity with countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, and worldwide was truly inspiring. Above all what was inspiring was people’s sense of having a hold over their destiny. George [Ciccariello-Maher] has written beautifully about this, as have Sujatha Fernandes, Alejandro Velasco, and Naomi Schiller; I’ve addressed it too.
The image that comes to mind when I think about revolution in Venezuela is people sitting in a circle of plastic chairs in a field, with glasses of lemonade going around. That’s what the revolution was: people talking to each other, sitting together. Women led this: 70 percent of grassroots leaders were women, mostly women of color. And they did so with a president who was jovial and jokey, and, in an inconsistent way, condemned homophobia and declared that to be an authentic socialist you had to be an authentic feminist. The execution of this was not always perfect. Venezuela did not eliminate homophobia or racism. But Chávez valorized blackness and indigeneity as part of this amazing experience. Anyone who went there and opened their eyes could see this. And the Chavista project was repeatedly validated electorally. Jimmy Carter declared, as late as 2012, that Venezeula had the best electoral process in the world.
All this was quite a thing to experience. But we must acknowledge that much of this has been chipped away at and obliterated by the recent crisis. The next thing I want to address is why. Why did Venezuela’s beautiful, amazing, inspiring experience turn into what we see today, with millions fleeing, with a majority, possibly a vast majority, living in poverty, with utterly debilitating blackouts, with a country unable to feed itself?
US empire plays a big part of the story, but it’s only part. The errors and even criminal ineptitude of the Venezuelan government also have to be front and center in our analysis. A number of factors caused the current crisis. The first is Venezuela’s dependence on oil. We must recognize the colonial roots of this, which Venezuela did not choose, and which is due to other development paths being systematically blocked for decades, even centuries. Nonetheless, Venezuela entered the Chávez era dependent on oil and left this era, when Chávez died in 2013, even more dependent on oil. This shows that all the talk of diversifying the economy did not succeed. Oil revenue accounted for 69 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings in 1998, the year Chávez was elected, and 96 percent after he died. Venezuela’s dependence on oil was shown to be a major problem in 2014 when the price plummeted.
The second cause of the crisis is a specific policy. It’s important to be specific because of the inevitability question. Venezuela’s collapse was not inevitable. It was tragic in that the government did stupid things for complicated reasons. The most frustrating thing done was maintaining a currency policy that allowed hundreds of billions of dollars to be diverted through corruption, according to Chavista ex-officials. This is complex, but Venezuela established currency controls in January 2003 in the midst of a devastating oil lockout that the US supported. The US also supported the coup against Chávez in 2002, so the US is involved even in this aspect of the crisis. In 2002 to 2003 there was a real risk of capital flight, and the government reacted in a sensible way by implementing currency controls. But they maintained these controls for many, many years after even leftist economists within the administration said the controls were unnecessary.
Inevitably, if you fix a currency against the US dollar there will be a black market. When I did research in Venezuela from 2007 to 2011 the difference between the official and black market rate was two to four times; it wasn’t that big of a difference. From 2014 on this official-black market gap shot up, rising to 1000 times difference and more. This allowed tremendous corruption. The government had multiple official rates. Companies, military leaders, and state officials would obtain dollars at one rate—officially to import food, medicine, and basic goods—and then trade at the much higher black market rate. They made obscene profits doing this, depriving Venezuela of much-needed goods and the government of hundreds of billions of dollars.
This policy was maintained for many years for several reasons. One was that it allowed the government some control over popular consumption. Despite its clear flaws the currency system gave the government some ability to funnel resources towards popular sectors. Another reason was the corrupt networks of people inside and outside the state profiting from the system. Some of these people likely pressured Maduro not to change the policy, saying something like, “don’t take away our cookies or we’ll take away your presidency.” Insiders speculated that Maduro could have faced a coup or destabilization if he had changed the currency policy. So he maintained it. In conjunction with the downturn in oil prices, the effect was devastating, as was apparent from 2014 to 2015 on.
US actions contributed to the crisis in two ways. The first is US support for violent opposition sectors, during the 2002 coup and after. The US also supported the 2002-2003 oil lockout, which ravaged Venezuela’s economy. More recently, the US supported 2014 and 2017 waves of opposition violence. (The government’s response to this included excessive force, which should be condemned.) The opposition did abhorrent things: they burned stored food, bombed schools and health clinics, and even strung galvanized wire across intersections to behead motorists. Opposition protests directly caused dozens of deaths, if not more. They also caused deaths indirectly; e.g., when streets were blocked, people couldn’t get to the emergency room.
The US also worked to “make the economy scream,” as in Chile under Allende. In 2015, Obama initiated sanctions, absurdly declaring Venezuela “an extraordinary national security threat,” which even the opposition initially condemned. These early sanctions blocked Venezuela’s ability to do business internationally. This became particularly serious from August 2017 on when Trump imposed additional sanctions. Francisco Rodriguez, a pro-opposition economist, says this amounted to a “toxification” of Venezuelan debt. In a 2018 WOLA article, Rodriguez shows how the 2017 sanctions decimated Venezuelan oil production: Colombia and Venezuela both experienced declining oil production in 2016 and early 2017, but Colombia recovered while Venezuela did not, due to the sanctions, which blocked Venezuela’s ability to incur debt. Mark Weisbrot and Jeff Sachs estimate forty thousand people died in 2017-2018 from these sanctions. The most recent sanctions, from January 2019, have been devastating for the country. The clearest example of this is the recent blackouts, which started in March and have continued on a rolling and sometimes daily basis. Maracaibo, the second city of Venezuela appears to be utterly devastated. Caracas was hit hard but was shielded from the worst. It’s important to say the sanctions didn’t directly cause the blackout. There’s no evidence the US directly caused it, though it’s plausible the US wanted to. The video game Call of Duty actually allows players to destroy Venezuela’s electricity grid. So obviously people are thinking about this. But evidence suggests the blackout was due to years of government mismanagement. The major problem was getting the lights back on, which took days. This was directly related to the sanctions because the government couldn’t buy imported fuel for backup generators. Some Venezuelans adamantly opposed to Maduro acknowledge the profound suffering the oil sanctions are causing. One key question is, how do we reduce the suffering? While Guaidó’s January 23 coup failed, the damage is being done daily. US officials are brutally aware of this, comparing themselves to Darth Vader, mocking Venezuelans’ suffering.
The last thing I want to talk about before addressing the question of solidarity is Venezuela’s political trajectory over the last couple of years, which I can only describe as toward an authoritarian system. We can debate whether this is “revolutionary” or just “plain” authoritarianism. I think it’s the latter, but we’ll get to that in a second.
This political change happened after the 2015 parliamentary elections, when the opposition won a nearly two-thirds supermajority. I was an observer in the election and can attest that it was clean. The government recognized its loss (contrary to predictions it would not do so), but then took steps to minimize the legislature’s ability to act. Some of this was justified, as the opposition acted in unconstitutional ways and didn’t always play by the rules. Later in 2016 the government suspended a recall referendum without giving any reason. The most damaging act, in my view, was suspending 2016 governor elections. This had an important impact on popular movements and grassroots sectors, who always had pride that theirs was an electorally-implemented revolution. Suspending the 2016 election took away some of this pride. In 2017, amidst a devastating wave of opposition violence, Maduro took a very controversial decision to call a new constituent assembly. Many grassroots Chavistas were unhappy about this, at least initially, because they felt the president could only suggest a new constituent assembly, with the people having to vote on it. But Maduro decreed that the assembly would happen, as it did in July 2017. The vote count for this appears to have been clearly fraudulent. Ironically, it didn’t have to be, as the opposition boycotted the process. The government inflated the vote count to make itself look stronger. What was most damaging was the National Electoral Council’s lost credibility, which has never been fully restored.
In October 2017, the government held rescheduled governor elections. The Bolívar state race was stolen outright by the government, further damaging the National Electoral Council. The most recent instance of the government’s authoritarian shift was the May 2018 presidential election. The government banned the leading opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, and imposed obstacles that essentially banned Venezuela’s three leading opposition parties. Maduro won, in part because much of the opposition boycotted. It seems the vote itself was technically clean. But under these conditions we can’t call this a fair election. A key question is: was this “revolutionary authoritarianism” or just “regular” authoritarianism? I think the latter is the case, in part because the government is also repressing the left and Chavista sectors.
This points to an issue Rosa Luxemburg talked about regarding the Russian Revolution’s move away from political pluralism:
With the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.
I think this is happening within Venezuela. There are revolutionaries in Venezuela, but the government has locked some of them up. This recently happened in Portuguesa, where ten commune leaders were locked up for two months. A government official, Elias Jaua, the Minister of Education, called this out in April, condemning “the growing criminalization of Popular Power.” He did this on the dissident Chavista website Aporrea.org, which has been blocked in Venezuela since January. That itself is further evidence of the government’s growing repression of dissent, even from the left.
This brings up the question of formal democracy. Obviously the Left will never be satisfied with formal democracy. We must critique how conservatives use formal democracy in revolutionary contexts, like Chile under Allende. I’m teaching a book on this tomorrow, which talks about how the anti-Allende opposition played dirty. They used their majority to block all of Allende’s appointments. The legislature in Venezuela has also played dirty. They’ve played with the rules of electoral democracy, and the image representative of democracy, repeatedly claiming fraud in past Venezuelan elections despite people like Jimmy Carter saying no fraud was happening.
This “dirty play” by conservative oppositions is always a danger when you have formal democracy and the left is in office. And we don’t want formal democracy, we want a participatory democracy, a socialist democracy. We want true control over all of the decisions affecting our lives, so we can defend the planet and do everything that needs to be done to live beautiful, free lives. Does formal democracy matter to this vision? This is the perennial debate. I think Venezuela suggests it does. I think Venezuela suggests, at the very least, some of the dangers of chipping away at formal democracy. There may be good reasons to do so. There are good reasons for some of the Venezuelan government’s actions against the opposition, which is playing dirty and not by the rules.
But this [chipping away at formal democracy] is not going to stop with the opposition. It’s going to extend to your own forces. We saw this in Russia. You ban opposition parties, then you ban factions in the party, and then you basically don’t even have a party, you ban any debate within the party. This is happening to some extent within Venezuela. It hasn’t gone all the way. There is certainly still debate in Venezuela. There are opposition parties. There is opposition media. There are still opposition protests. We don’t want to exaggerate the extent of this, in part because it would legitimate US intervention, but we have to acknowledge it.
Now, finally onto the question of solidarity, which is really challenging and difficult, although some things are obvious, like no US war. It would be utterly devastating. It would be utterly horrendous. Some Venezuelans have called for it, but the vast majority does not want war. That’s crystal clear. US sanctions are also an abomination. We have to oppose them. In addition to the necessary but probably ineffective task of pressuring the Trump administration, it’s also really important to pressure progressive Democrats, one of whom perhaps will even win the 2020 presidency. We should make them take more courageous stands on US sanctions in particular and say, “this is not acceptable, this is not something we should be doing.”
I think it’s also important for the Left to not give cover to the Maduro administration. This is where I get called out a lot, on Twitter and elsewhere as a “left liberal,” as an apologist for the Trump administration, all sorts of things. But I think it’s important to not give Maduro cover, because his administration is blocking Venezuelans’ ability to protest and blocking their ability to resolve the crisis, including blocking the possibility of resolving the crisis in a more revolutionary, direct, and deeply democratic fashion.
There’s a call amongst some, though not all, sectors of the Venezuelan Left, opposing Maduro and calling for free and fair elections. It’s a very challenging question. It’s very difficult to figure out what this would actually mean. But my inclination is, if such a call is made by sectors of the Left, we have a duty to seriously consider and even support it. Yet, we should do so only under certain conditions, namely a context without US sanctions or warmongering, which function like a gun to the head. We saw this in Nicaragua in 1990, with the Contra War. When there’s a gun to the head, people aren’t voting freely, but under duress. The demonization of Chavismo also has to stop. Chavismo has to be seen as a legitimate option within Venezuela and I think that’s crucial. There must also be a renovation of the National Electoral Council. And there would probably have to be observers in any electoral process.
Solidarity also means supporting negotiations and genuine dialogue within Venezuela. We have to acknowledge that even people we abhor have, in some cases, legitimate grievances against the government. To prevent war, to prevent the worst from happening, it’s very important to support efforts of mediation, dialogue, and negotiations. If this led to free and fair elections and Maduro wasn’t running (though perhaps he should be allowed to if he wants), it’s possible to imagine that other Chavistas could get a lot of support. I’m not sure they’d win, to be honest; in the current moment that may be quite difficult. But there could be renovation and important new developments.
Solidarity certainly means supporting popular movements, which still exist, and which by and large continue to support Maduro, however critically, in the current conjuncture. Movement leaders at any rate do, although many within the popular sectors are not clearly identifiable politically one way or another. It’s actually very difficult to figure out what’s happening amongst the very diverse popular sectors, who are suffering tremendously from the current sanctions. Some popular sectors are supporting Guaidó, though it seems they are more against Maduro and don’t know what Guaidó’s program actually is. Others are supporting Maduro but holding their noses. Many others are saying let us resolve our problems ourselves. They are not supportive of either of those options. I think the best thing we can do is figure out how to carve out space for Venezuelans to actually resolve their crisis. It’s a challenge to do so, but I think that’s what we should do.
Venezuela: A Plea for Grounded Solidarity
What is solidarity? And how do we engage in practices of solidarity today in the fraught context of a faltering Venezuelan revolutionary process, besieged from within as from without by forces ranging from the horrific to the benign, a—thankfully failing—coup attempt by Juan Guaidó with the backing of Donald Trump, and the everyday exhaustion of macroeconomic chaos? I begin with an assertion: that we cannot approach the question of solidarity without asking first, what is the nature of Chavismo and the Bolivarian Revolution, more broadly understood? And second, what is the nature of the crisis—economic, social, and constitutional—currently racking the country? It is only on the basis of this material reality—and the materiality of the actors and movements that it comprises—that we can then speak of solidarity in the present and the difficult questions that Venezuela raises about the transition to socialism.
In other words, I reject from the jump the idea—which I find ultimately incoherent and unsustainable—that it is possible to ground international solidarity solely in anti-imperialism. We can and should stand against US intervention abroad on principle and under almost all circumstances, but solidarity is much more than this. And this view, too common on the left, begs many questions—for example: which empire? The answer may seem obvious on a specific historical terrain, but cannot hold much beyond that. Venezuela is not Nicaragua or Brazil, much less is Maduro comparable to Assad or Gaddafi. Such a view leads, moreover, to a wholly uncritical form of solidarity, in which it is not our job to judge but to support. As with too many forms of blind allyship—for example, within the US Left—this approach fails because of what it excuses and enables in the community in question. But it also fails because it lets us off the hook: no longer tasked with the hard work of political judgment, we need only show solidarity and nothing more. The distortion is two-sided.
There can be no true solidarity without the hard work of grasping the reality of the political process in question, but the warning remains in the form of a potent self-interrogation: who are we to judge? And the point is an important one that demands a concrete analysis coupled with humility. We are thus caught in the space between blind solidarity and condescending judgment, although this is a broad space indeed. So what I want to argue today is that we must judge the Venezuelan process from a specifically revolutionary perspective, attentive to those transformations that point toward a socialist horizon, but also those dynamics that point toward the masses as the necessary vehicle of any revolutionary change. If we are to avoid both hypercriticism on the one hand and what Lenin called “tail-ism” (uncritically following the process) on the other, both ingredients are essential.
So, some starting points. The Bolivarian Revolution began long before Hugo Chávez, in the armed struggle both against a corrupt, two-party elite democracy—here I think we can certainly sympathize—and for a different vision of Venezuelan society: more democratic, more socialist, more sovereign, more egalitarian. The concept of Bolivarianism was itself forged as the guerrilla faltered and militants sought to rethink revolutionary change beyond the failing formulas of Marxist orthodoxy and other imported models. In fact, Bolivarianism meant and means precisely this: to struggle toward revolutionary socialism and radical democracy on the basis of local material conditions and political traditions. It meant deriving a potential revolutionary subject (or subjects) from the existing class constellation and drawing inspiration from the political traditions and utopian horizons of indigenous and maroon communities. This search for local inspiration is germane to our question today, and just as Bolivarianism plainly exceeded the figure of Simón Bolívar, Chavismo similarly exceeded even so imposing a figure as Hugo Chávez.
Refracted through the Bolivarian kaleidoscope, in which the stubborn presence of multiplicity does not mean struggles are fragmented, Chavismo moved like a churning dialectic, incorporating revolutionary demands grounded in race, class, gender, and sexuality under the broader umbrella of the pueblo bravo and what later came to be called twenty-first century socialism. As many have insisted—including myself and Hetland, but also Alejandro Velasco, Sujatha Fernandes, Naomi Schiller, and Dario Azzellini, not to mention many intellectuals, militants, and activists on the ground in Venezuela—the Bolivarian Revolution has long been characterized by a peculiarly dynamic tension between the from-above and the from-below, the constituted power of the state and the constituent power of the grassroots.
This process saw the dramatic improvement in social welfare, health, and education for many millions of the poorest Venezuelans—this much we all probably know. Less noted, however, is what is often called the protagonistic role of the Venezuelan people, their ability to intervene and participate politically through institutions of direct democracy at the local level. Less known still is the fact that these participatory institutions were only apparently constructed from-above, by the state: in reality they were built upon foundations laid by ambitious popular struggles. Before the state-recognized communal councils there were the spontaneous barrio assemblies and the armed militias that defended them. And before the state-recognized communes, grassroots activists and self-styled comuneros and comuneras were building their own communes, directly-democratic local institutions for self-managed production and distribution. “Revolutions are not made by laws,” Marx right notes, and the Bolivarian Revolution has proven this truism over and over.
What is the nature of the current crisis? It is not the crisis of a government, but the crisis of a system. To be clear, there are many things that have been done by and more importantly to the current government of Nicolás Maduro that have played into the deepening and ultimately the spiraling of this crisis beyond all control. When the currency control system entered into crisis around 2012, for example, many—myself included—argued that it should be scrapped. It was not, and what followed was a progressive tightening of the Gordian knot of the import sector, incentivizing corruption, black market activity, smuggling, and speculation, all the while hobbling imports to a country still over-reliant on the global market.
But the point is that the crisis bears out all of the weakness of a century of oil development: the abandonment of the countryside and food production, an uncritical reliance on oil-fueled consumerism, and a faith in the private sector’s ability to provide imported goods. In this painful context, the deepening economic crisis and political reconfigurations within the state have undeniably shifted the constellation of power within Chavismo. It would be hard to ignore, for example, the increased power of some sectors of the military—whose loyalty has become an even hotter commodity during the recent coup attempt. But if the widening of this breach between the state and the grassroots poses an undeniable challenge today, these revolutionary grassroots sectors also represent the necessary fulcrum for our solidarities, and it is from them that we must derive our coordinates.
Hetland has laid out his vision for leftist solidarity in the face of the Venezuelan crisis, centering three elements: “non-interventionism, self-determination, and solidarity with the oppressed.” While clearly opposed to US intervention, Hetland details at length what he considers the failures of the Maduro government, pulling no punches in the process: “Maduro was not democratically elected,” he writes, adding that the Venezuelan president “banned Venezuela’s leading opposition parties and candidates,” cancelled a referendum, has tended toward “increasing authoritarianism” and has used repressive measures “not only against opposition violence, but also against peaceful protest.” While I don’t want to spend too much time on the details of these claims, I do feel the need to briefly show that most are half-truths at best, and that each has a long and complicated backstory that is lost on most foreign observers.
For example, parties were not simply banned, they were required to re-validate their status after boycotting previous elections, and while this may have been an annoyance—the fact that some managed to do so means that others could have done the same. Candidates, including—it must be said—some Chavistas, have indeed been barred from running for office, mostly over corruption charges. Some opposition leaders are in prison, mostly for engaging in insurrectionary activities that would be similarly punishable in most countries. It is difficult to uphold a narrative of “government repression” when the bloody clashes sporadically unleashed by the opposition have seen police, soldiers, Chavistas, opposition protesters, and bystanders killed in equal numbers. Maduro’s convocation of a constituent assembly election was an admittedly desperate—but ultimately successful—gambit to put an end to one such wave of street violence. And what kind of “authoritarian” regime allows a coup-plotter to walk free with impunity while conspiring with a foreign government? In the US, Guaidó would sit in jail; in “authoritarian” countries, he wouldn’t be breathing.
“The Maduro administration,” Hetland concludes, “has systematically blocked the Venezuelan people’s ability to express themselves politically,” and as a result, “the Left should embrace the call for free and fair elections in Venezuela.” Given this, solidarity with the oppressed requires a neither/nor posture, neither Maduro nor Guaidó: in Hetland’s words, “solidarity…requires that leftists in the US do what we can to support Venezuelans’ own struggles against the Maduro administration’s disastrous policies, criminal ineptitude, and repression….Standing with the oppressed demands opposing both the US and the Maduro administration.”
Now, I disagree wholeheartedly with this call for immediate elections, which I think tacitly accepts an opposition regime change narrative that we conspicuously don’t apply to other governments. We don’t demand new elections when the approval ratings of Peña Nieto in Mexico or Macron in France plummet; Mexico and Colombia are essentially territorially bounded mass graves, but the media doesn’t call them failed states and demand regime change; and when it comes to Honduras, the US supported both the 2009 coup and the outright theft of the 2017 election.
But I want to focus in on a revealing pivot in Hetland’s analysis, where he admits that “elections are not…the only or even the primary form of self-determination” and wonders aloud whether what we are witnessing is not instead another manifestation of the tension at the heart of the Bolivarian process between liberal democracy and a democracy in which, as he puts it, “workers and the poor exercise direct control over economic, social, and political decisions affecting their lives.” Hetland is quick to dismiss this possibility, however, pointing us to the case of Ángel Prado, a spokesperson for El Maizal, a massive corn commune in Lara State, who has suffered what he calls “direct repression by the Maduro administration,” thereby proving that the Venezuelan government has abandoned its professed support for grassroots democracy.
Prado, Hetland rightly notes, was effectively shut out of local elections and even arrested and investigated on bogus charges of electoral irregularities. Despite all this, Hetland admits that Prado continues to support Maduro, especially against foreign aggression. But let’s listen more closely to Prado’s own words just a few months ago: “We stand against reformism and we criticize the bad things our government does but, faced with the imperial threat,” he and other comuneras and comuneros “are betting it all in defense of the Revolution and will die with our boots on alongside President Nicolás Maduro.” Betting it all. How can someone be both a diehard supporter of the Venezuelan government and proof of its repressive nature? Is Prado stupid, naïve, or both? What explains the gap between this grassroots organizer and a growing international consensus that includes even a sector of the Left?
First, Prado knows perfectly well what the “direct control over economic, social, and political decisions affecting their lives” means. He and thousands of others have been fighting for a decade to build just this sort of power. Second, radical grassroots sectors—and the communes in particular—saw increased support from the Maduro government during at least the first two years following Chávez’s death. In the case of El Maizal, this support was concrete: in late 2014, a lower chamber of the Supreme Court effectively cancelled the commune’s land title. After Maduro stepped in to publicly criticize the decision, the Court’s highest chamber ruled in El Maizal’s favor. But maybe Maduro’s intervention to defend this directly democratic space was simply more evidence of his authoritarianism?
Third, Prado might well wonder what Hetland means when he indicts the “Maduro government.” If the past twenty years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to reduce the Venezuelan government, much less the state, to a single thing. We must instead constantly disaggregate so simplistic an idea to suit an incredibly messy reality. What government? At what level—national, state, or local? Which police forces and authorities doled out the repression? What forces are at play, how are they maneuvering, and toward what ends? And above all, what leverage do revolutionary sectors have within and against the bureaucratic state apparatus? Once we ask these questions, we are reminded that this is nothing new at all.
Prado—like most grassroots leaders—has faced opposition and even outright aggression from more conservative sectors of Chavismo from the very beginning. As he explained to me, the commune’s “principal enemies” are actually Chavistas—local mayors and state governors threatened by successful experiments in popular power that cut into their resources and undermine their legitimacy. Rather than “repression” of the grassroots, what has existed for far longer is a veritable war between the grassroots and more conservative sectors of the state. This is nothing new at all—why feed it into the regime change machine today? Fourth and finally, as in any war, strategy matters. The decisions that Ángel Prado and others make occur not in an intellectual vacuum, but in a concrete context with concrete—and today, potentially frightening—consequences. He knows that communes like El Maizal, already under attack from a variety of forces, will become open military targets if the opposition comes to power—it matters little if it is through a coup or an election.
Seen from this perspective, we can see that Hetland’s account of solidarity conflates very different criteria. While he gestures just momentarily toward the revolutionary grassroots, his broader account combines legitimate and less legitimate concerns, blending together radical, liberal, and even right-wing talking points. Amid a torrent of bad faith, hyperbole, and outright misinformation—about, for example, burning trucks filled with so-called humanitarian aid at the Colombian border—we simply cannot afford such conflations. But what happens if, instead of turning away from the revolutionary grassroots, we turn toward them as our guide to a radical notion of solidarity and a metric of progress toward socialism in the present?
Once we do so, we immediately realize that there is a vast distance between criticizing the government and opposing it, and that there has never been a shortage of criticism emanating from the grassroots. In fact, this criticism within-and-against the state has functioned as a motor constantly driving forward the radicalization of the Bolivarian process, and I want to argue that it is this grounded criticism—one acutely attentive to the context, stakes, and consequences of political positions—that provides the basis for our own grounded solidarity. In the words of the former commune minister Reinaldo Iturriza,
Are there problems with the Maduro government? No one knows this better than the Venezuelan people…but it is the Venezuelan people who have the right to say how the problems are going to be resolved here….They come and tell us, we who are fighting here every day, what the shortcomings of our government are and why we have to step aside and let the United States crush us because there are corrupt or authoritarian people within the Bolivarian government. That is a lack of respect.
It is a lack of respect for those revolutionary movements that have always criticized the government, and a lack of respect for those who will inevitably bear the brunt of a right-wing counterattack. But this criticism is a moving forward, not a moving backward, it doesn’t in any way mean opposing the besieged Maduro government, much less marking out a nonexistent no man’s land between Chavismo and the opposition. Criticism doesn’t mean opposition, and this basic fact has been a hallmark of the Venezuelan process, where the grassroots have been both the most critical and the most fervent in their demand for real change, real democracy, real socialism.
Grappling with the complex simultaneity of the French and Haitian revolutions, C.L.R. James marked out a crucial distinction between Jacobins and sansculottes, the “enlightened despots” at the head of the government and the “extreme democrats” of the revolutionary grassroots. The latter, he insisted, “wanted the direct government of the people by the people; if they demanded a dictatorship against the aristocrats they wished to exercise it themselves.” This distinction then generates another, more provocative distinction between good terror and bad terror. In its early stages, “The Terror had saved France” but in a second phase, “far more workingmen than aristocrats perished” and Robespierre “destroyed his own Left-wing and thereby sealed his own doom.” Contra Hetland, the Maduro government has not turned on its left wing, in part due to a reality made clear by the brief 2002 coup, which was reversed by mass pressure in the streets: that Chavismo cannot survive without the grassroots. And for James, Robespierre’s tragedy was a tragedy for the masses too: the grassroots abandoned their leader, but “in leaving him to his fate, were opening the door to worse enemies.”
This orientation toward the revolutionary masses is the necessary criterion for navigating solidarity today. If we fail to mark this distinction, if we conflate liberal and revolutionary criteria, we risk falling into a quite literally self-defeating approach that proclaims the need for radical change only until the so-called rights of our enemies are infringed upon, at which point some ostensible revolutionaries even make it their job to defend those who would see the Left exterminated. We simply can’t measure success with the metrics of our enemies, and we can’t gauge revolutionary progress by non-revolutionary standards. And we certainly can’t measure a process that seeks to build grassroots direct democracy and communal power by the standards of liberal democracy, with its fetishized separation of powers and divorce of social from political rights.
Speaking of those enemies, C. L. R. James is again unrivaled in his precision: “For these old slave-owners…who, as soon as they got the chance, began their old cruelties again; for these there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink.” The lesson for us should be clear today: we should not “waste one tear or one drop of ink” on the fact that—until his recent escape during the bungled Guaidó coup attempt—opposition leader Leopoldo López spent years in jail for inciting street violence in the name of the lost privileges of a displaced wealthy and white elite. This is a strategic question, not an ethical one, except insofar as many grassroots revolutionaries feel that, ethically speaking, López should have been in jail long ago.
We should however shed ink if not also tears denouncing the recent jailing of ten commune activists in Portuguesa State, arrested for resisting the privatization of the communal rice factory Arroz del Alba. But rather than simply denouncing “the government” as a whole, we must again grapple with the complex dialectics of the Bolivarian process, which in this case generated a public feud between former and current agricultural ministers. For his part, the more radical Elías Jaua denounced the jailing of the comuneros, tweeting that “the old bourgeois state is reacting and charging them for promoting a parallel state: the Communal State!” The current and more conservative agriculture minister Wilmar Castro Soteldo responded by defending the privatization in the name of productivity. As is so often the case, the comuneros were only released under pressure from the grassroots.
The transition to socialism offers no guarantees. Or rather, only guarantees of the most daunting sort: transition is guaranteed to be difficult. Our enemies, I guarantee you, will not give in without a fight, but will instead fight tooth and nail by what are guaranteed to be the most brutal means. Here again, C. L. R. James: “the cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression.” Further, global capitalism metes out punishment against any alternatives on the economic terrain as well: price controls, exchange rates—any attempt to straitjacket capitalism is punished with the utmost severity. As the grassroots commune organizer Rosángela Orozco once told me during her brief stint as commune minister: “the communes are made to govern, but we have a capitalist state that refuses to die.” Why would we not expect political and macroeconomic crisis in this context? We reveal our own naïve assumptions about social change when we neglect this, when we talk about revolution only until the going gets tough, as it inevitably will. Solidarity is easy when things are going well, but all the more necessary when these inevitable difficulties set in, when built-in contradictions must be negotiated, when a messy path forward must be charted.
Our task is to build a grounded and specifically revolutionary solidarity in the present with this criterial distinction as our fundamental compass. We must walk the fine line between uncritical and hypercritical, between absolving ourselves of judgment entirely and thinking we know better than those fighting it out on the ground. This is crucially not solidarity from afar but solidarity alongside, as part of a broad internationalist movement that opposes—through direct action where possible—all US aggression against Venezuela, and specifically the murderous sanctions regime, which a recent report blames for at least forty thousand deaths. It also means refusing demands for new elections while sanctions hang over the heads of Venezuelans like the sword of Damocles. We know from history—in Nicaragua and elsewhere—what comes of this.
But grounded solidarity also means supporting in whatever way possible—materially and ideologically—revolutionary expressions of grassroots power like Venezuela’s communes. And it means doing so as we build the same here: fighting for community control and self-defense against the police and ICE, for example. And here as in Venezuela, we must understand that the fundamental measure of our movements isn’t their success in a rotten electoral system, either, but something much different: the development and expansion of the direct, collective power of the community. Toward doing so, I leave you with one more quote from the great C. L. R. James: “the rich are only defeated when running for their lives.” And one more request: that we not be squeamish about making them run.