Republished courtesy of The Guardian.
The inspirational successes of early Chavismo may have blinded broadly pro-Chávez academics like me to later failings and excesses, but the democratic slide under Maduro has been a tipping point.
‘This is a coup! Let the world know!” These words (below) from Venezuela’s environment minister Ana Elisa Osorio during the 2002 overthrow of Hugo Chávez marked the beginning of my love affair with Latin American politics, which seemed to offer a way out of the managerial, third-way politics sweeping across Europe at the time. But 15 years and a lot of firsthand experience later, the economic and democratic catastrophe engulfing Venezuela has forced me to re-evaluate my position. And I am not alone.
It was inspiring to see (try watching the remarkable documentary Chávez: Inside the Coup) how Osorio, planning and finance minister Jorge Giordani, and of course Chávez himself defended Venezuela’s poor majority against an oligarchic, anti-democratic elite backed by the villainous George W Bush administration. So supportive was this majority that they managed not only to reverse the coup but also to see out a crippling three-month oil strike led by the same unrepentant, unrepresentative elite less than a year later. And the progress they were defending was undeniable.
Under Chávez all of the obvious indicators moved in the right direction. Poverty was halved. Extreme poverty almost disappeared. Unemployment fell dramatically. Inequality was lowered at last. Calorific intake rose. Illiteracy was eradicated. Millions achieved access to free medical services for the first time. And political inclusion was boosted by voter-registration drives, with a knock-on effect on turnout in elections. But the most significant change was less tangible, as Chávez attempted to shift the national ideal away from crude and conspicuous aping of western consumer capitalism towards greater confidence in local culture, character and capability.
Abroad, Chávez promoted stronger relations among developing countries to curb the influence of major powers and international financial institutions. He fought the spread of neoliberal free-trade agreements that prioritised corporate interests over social wellbeing and democratic control. And he routinely spoke up for those weaker countries subjected to the violent whims of the strong.
Yet by the time I was living and doing research in Venezuela in 2010, cracks had begun to show. Chávez had responded to the opposition coup and oil strike by radicalising his revolution, but this new 21st-century socialism produced mixed results at best.
Massive investment in cooperatives and state industries produced little return, and the economy grew ever more reliant on oil exports. Nationalisation of private business no longer seemed to apply to “strategic” industries alone, being used instead to discipline a hostile private sector. A black market for foreign currency had sprung up to meet unsatisfied demand, making it extremely profitable to get your hands on cheap dollars sold by the state.
Key foods were sometimes scarce. New channels for popular participation in decision-making suffered from financial corruption and administrative disarray while doing little to deepen democracy. Renewal of the broadcast licence of the opposition-linked television channel RCTV had been selectively rejected. One judge was imprisoned for releasing a politically sensitive prisoner. And in the course of my own research, I heard both on and off the record about widespread incompetence, waste, corruption and hypocrisy among the new Chavista state elite.
Despite all this, I was still glad to see Maduro win the 2013 election following Chávez’s death, for one simple reason: the opposition. Though usually depicted as the “good guys” of the Venezuelan conflict, the key leaders of the fragmented Democratic Unity Roundtable – Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles and María Corina Machado – were all closely involved with events around the 2002 coup.
López and Machado in particular have spent 18 years trying to bring down the Venezuelan government, irrespective of its democratic legitimacy and with no political platform beyond “defeat Chavismo”. They have also tried to marginalise Capriles, the only one to have achieved some semblance of an understanding of why Chávez won in 1998.
But under Maduro the government has lost both its legitimacy and the support of many who once backed Chávez. The economic collapse, intensified by falling oil prices since 2014, has been catastrophically mishandled, and in ways that are well understood. Maduro has also arbitrarily barred his main rival Capriles from political office, as well as jailing, partially freeing, and suddenly this week re-arresting opposition leaders López and Antonio Ledezma.
Precisely for such situations the 1999 constitution allows citizens to remove an under-performing president through a referendum that could provoke new elections. Since 2016 this option has been open to the opposition, but it was first delayed by onerous procedural requirements and then suspended entirely due to allegations of fraud during signature collection.
Alternatively, the next regular presidential elections should take place in 2018. But rather than face either of these, Maduro has unilaterally invoked a constituent assembly to rewrite the very constitution underpinning the Bolivarian revolution almost from day one. It is a remarkably desperate move for a man elected purely on the back of Chávez’s legacy.
For many academics on the left, broadly supportive of Chavismo’s aims, this democratic slide has been a cause for much heartache and soul-searching.But as ever where Venezuela is concerned, there is also conflict. The leadership of the Latin American Studies Association issued a statement calling on the government to respect the 1999 constitution, only to receive a reply from dozens of its 12,000 members rejecting their framing of the issue. For some, Chávez’s project has failed, while for others Venezuela’s problems are “not the result of too much socialism, but too little”. Some argue that “the international left does not even need to take a position” on the validity of the constitutional assembly as it is an internal matter, while others see it as “the single biggest miscalculation of Maduro’s presidency”.
One way to adjudicate is to turn to the same sincere defenders of the national interest who originally inspired my fascination with Venezuela, and their verdict is damning. The same Ana Elisa Osorio seen fighting the coup against Chávez in 2002 is now part of the Critical Chavismo movement. She finds that Maduro’s “authoritarianism” makes him “unworthy of the name Chávista”. Her comrade in that fight, Giordani, lasted a year in the Maduro government before quitting to denounce widespread incompetence, ineffectiveness, and unaccountability. In Giordani’s eyes, the constituent assembly is just the “pompous and spurious” act of a “socialism practised only in its most costly and painful form: repression of anyone who opposes or thinks differently about [the government’s] dark plans to keep hold of state power”.
But what of Chávez? Did he sow the seeds of Maduro’s downfall? And did his good intentions blind me and others to dangerous failings in his government? Did I think centralisation of power was a price worth paying? Did I forget that oil prices also fall? Did I downplay abuses I would have denounced with a more rightwing government? Despite my best efforts, I suspect that I did.
If it’s true that “the left outside Venezuela can help rebuild the movement by participating in an honest accounting of what went wrong”, then admitting and learning from our own failures is a necessary first step.