Venezuela Agonistes.

There are two things remarkable about coverage of the Venezuelan crisis. The first is the silence of the Left in the face of it. This includes the champions of the so-called Latin American “Pink Tide” who saw in the Boliviarian Revolution an alternate developmental model that along with the left leaning regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Nicaragua offered hope for a new socialist bulwark in the Western Hemisphere that, unlike the Castro regime in Cuba, was both socialist and democratic. Or at least, that was the thought in the early 2000s. Now, rather than offer robust critiques of what went wrong, those champions have gone quiet, perhaps hugging small comfort pets against their Che Guevara t-shirts while muttering into their pillows something about the sulphuric impact of “neo-imperialism” and globalised corporate control.

The second remarkable aspect of the coverage of Venezuela is the continued misrepresentation by conservative (and even mainstream media) commentators that Venezuela demonstrates (yet again) the failures of socialism in practice. Allow me to address this fallacy.

Before I do so let’s briefly note what is clearly an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state (seen, in Gramscian terms, as economy+civil society+political society).  Regardless of external factors and interference (such as oil prices, Cuban security assistance and US government hostility) and the disloyal nature of most of the traditional opposition to the Boliviarian Movement, the crisis has at its core the incompetence and corruption of the Maduro government. The seeds for the decline were sown by Hugo Chavez himself with his prolifigate spending and cult of personality, but the bitter fruit of criminality, cronyism, patronage, partisanism and despotic maladministration ripened, then rotted under Maduro.

This not entirely surprising because in truth the Boliviarian experiment was always more populist than socialist. Socialism is not just about downwards redistribution of income and expansion of public goods and services via the use of tax revenues.  It is not just about progressive tax reform to make the rich pay their fair share. It is not just about nationalising privately held productive assets or at least strategic economic assets. It not about state ownership of the means of production. And it definitely does not involve a self-appointed authoritarian revolutionary “vanguard” telling everyone what their best interests are, what to do in pursuit of those interests, and concentrating power in a small partisan elite in order to compel others do so.

Instead, socialism involves equality in and of production, to include worker control of decision-making on everything from occupational health and safety to production levels to distribution and reinvestment of profit. Socialism involves decentralisation and local autonomy in political decision-making, to include about the distribution of public goods, social investment and economic development. It involves not just matters of production, particularly with respect to control of productive assets, but also of decision-making behaviour within production and the attendant social relations linked to it. Socialism has cooperatives as a basic unit of social integration; national populism has paramilitary militias and neighbourhood political snitches.

There is more to socialism than what I have outlined, but the point should be pretty clear: socialism is about devolving power to the people, not concentrating it in the hands of a central government. Even if a transition period is needed after bourgeois rule, the move to socialism involves expansion of the number of decisional sites that determine the material, cultural and political fortunes of the average citizen. To do so requires dismantling of a capitalist state apparatus, which is characterised by top down managerial control of public and private policy decision-making, and its replacement with a socialist state in which policy decisions ultimately rest in the hands of immediate stakeholders and are conveyed upwards into national-level platforms. The transition between the two–from a capitalist state to a socialist state–is the hard part of any change from liberal to social democracy (even more so than in violent social revolutions where the destruction of the capitalist state runs in parallel with the elimination of capitalism and its elites), and in Venezuela’s case it was never done. Both Chavez and Maduro have relied on a capitalist state to implement and enforce their populist, and increasingly authoritarian mode of governance.

Rather than socialist and democratic, the Boliviarian revolution is a left-leaning national populist regime using a state capitalist project and corporatist forms of interest group intermediation marshalled along partisan lines in order to redistribute wealth via partisan patronage networks to its support base and to its leaders. It has uncoupled wealth redistribution from productivity and, for all the achievements in education and health made under Chavez, those gains were lost once prices for the single export commodity it relies on (oil) fell and the revenues from oil experts shrunk. Corruption and incompetence, coupled with private capital flight and the exodus of the managerial class (mostly to Florida), accelerated the downward spiral, and now Venezuela is for all purposes a failed state. Inflation is stratospheric, food scarcity is rife, there are shortages of essential medical supplies, power and potable water, petrol supplies (?!) are increasingly spotty, unemployment, under-employment and crime are at all-time highs (the murder rate is 85 per 100,100 population, one of the highest in the world). Violent street protests have become the norm, and spot curfews and other coercive and legal curtailments on freedom of movement and speech are now the most widely used tools with which the Maduro regime handles dissent. For a purportedly Leftist regime, there is no worse indictment than that.

That Chavez, Maduro and their supporters refer to the Boliviarian regime as “socialist” is offered as proof  by some that it is, and that is it is therefore socialism that has failed. That is hopelessly naive. “Socialism” is the label that the Boliviarians have cloaked themselves in because they know that given its history, “populism” is not in fact very popular in Latin America. In its own way the US is finding out why that is so, but the important point to note is that there is nothing genuinely socialist about they way the Boliviarians behave.

The current reality is that the Boliviarian regime has descended from a left-leaning national populist form into an Scotch-addled kleptocracy (Venezuelans have one of the highest per capita intakes of Scotch in the world, and in recent years the regime has taken to hoarding supplies of it). In the measure that it is besieged by its own weaknesses and the rising opposition of the popular base that it ostensibly serves, it increasingly relies on coercion and criminality for its sustenance. Military and government involvement in the narcotics trade, the presence of Cuban intelligence in and out of the armed forces and security apparatus, covert links to states such as Syria and North Korea, the presence of operatives of extra-regional non-state actors such as Hezbollah in government circles–all of these factors suggest that Venezuela’s national interests are no longer foremost in the minds of the Boliviarian elite.

This has not been lost on the population, and the last year has seen over 1.5 million Venezuelans emigrate. This is on a par with Syrian and Rohinga refugee flows and amount to more than 4 million Venezuelans now living outside their motherland (with most leaving after 1999 when Chavez was first elected). The refugee crisis has impacted the relations between Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, with their borders heavily militarised and safe passage corridors opened for migrants to proceed to countries such as Ecuador and Peru. The extent of the Venezuelan refugee crisis is now regional in nature.

Not surprisingly, there have been some moves against the Maduro regime from within the armed forces. This have failed due to basic incompetence of the plotters and the fact that the Venezuelan military is stocked with Boliviarian sycophants buttressed by Cuban intelligence agents who spend more time looking for moles and dissidents than they do improving national intelligence collection capabilities per se. The combat readiness of the Venezuelan military has been replaced by proficiency in crowd control, and the High Command is staffed by flag ranked officers who have more good conduct medals and Boliviarian revolutionary awards than they do insignia demonstrating operational proficiency in any kinetic endeavour. May the goddess help the Venezuelan armed forces should they ever pick a fight with the battle hardened Colombian military or the well-disciplined Brazilians.

For a military coup to happen, there need to be vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military and push and pull factors compelling it to act. Vertical cleavages are those between officers and the enlisted corps, including rivalries between flag, field and company ranked officers, Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and the enlisted soldiers they command. Horizontal cleavages are this between armed services–Army, Navy, Air Force, national gendarme, border patrol, interior ministry secret police, etc–and within those services (say, between armour and infantry in the land forces, or surface fleet and submariners in the Navy).

The Boliviarians and their Cuban advisors have been very good at purging non-loyalists from the officer corps. Their control over NCOs and enlisted personnel is a bit more tenuous, as evidenced by recent attempts to kill Maduro using a drone and an earlier helicopter attack on military installations. But the big cleavages needed to form a coup-making nucleus simply do not exist in the measure that is required, even if the push and pull factors are clearly present. The push factors are those internal to the military that compels it to act, for institutional reasons, against the government (such as loss of discipline, corruption, lack of effective military leadership etc. that erode the ability of the armed forces to discharge their basic defence functions against foreign counterparts ). The pull factors are the external societal conditions, to include family ties of military personnel and civilian elite pleading for the restoration of social order, that draw the uniformed corps towards intervention. So the coup “equation” is just half complete: the motives for intervention are present but the organisational or institutional conditions as of yet are not.

Not that a military coup is a panacea for Venezuela. It could well make things worse. Perhaps this is where a bit of good news has emerged. It turns out that the US was approached by military coup plotters for support and turned down the request. This, in spite of Donald Trump’s public statements about US military intervention against the Maduro regime. It seems that, even if not for all the right reasons, seasoned diplomats understood the downside of agreeing to the request and cooler heads prevailed.

It is praiseworthy that the US, or at least its foreign policy decision-makers, understand that Venezuelans need to be the sole owners of their collective destiny. This destiny might or might not include the reactionary wishful thinkers in the self-exiled community that has made Weston, Florida, a mini-Caracas (and whom have joined with the ageing Cuban exiles to form an anti-communist mafia that fund-raises in “dark” ways). Whether they join or not, the key to resolving the Venezuelan crisis involves providing Maduro and his entourage with a safe passage out of government and an incremental and negotiated restoration of the productive apparatus to a mix of interests of different political persuasions under an agreed upon caretaker regime. This will be a difficult process even with military tutelage and arbitration since the military itself will have to be reformed.

However, since the Boliviarian Revolution was never socialist and the capitalist state remains intact even if decrepit, the foundations for a rejuvenated economy are present. Likewise, many of the social gains made by the lower classes under the Boliviarians have taken enough social root so as to be non-removable if violence is to be avoided. So the foundational compromise underpinning the new democratic regime  seems to involve an exchange whereby a return to private ownership of some aspects of the Venezuelan economy under broader market steerage is traded for ongoing state control of strategic assets and the extension of social guarantees involving health, education, housing and welfare. The tax regime will need reforming and the art of tax evasion by the wealthy will need to be curtailed for this to happen, so it is unsure if the majority in the opposition will accept anything other than the status quo ante the emergence of the Boliviarians.

If we remember the sclerosis of Venezuelan democracy before Chavez appeared on the scene, where the two major parties–Accion Democratic and COPEI–alternated power in a concertative arrangement where elites siphoned off the country’s wealth while buying off popular consent with oil revenue-derived subsides of public goods and services, then we can understand why the back to the future scenario will not work. It will take a sincere effort by fair-minded people on both sides, Boliviarians and Opposition, to recognise that the experiment is over and the country needs a new course that is not a repeat of the past, be it recent or distant.

And there is where I will leave with a note of optimism. Unlike many Latin American countries, Venezuela has a historical precedent of reaching consensus–or at least elite agreement–on the characteristics and contours of a new political system. The 1958 “Pacto de Punto Fijo” (roughly translated as the Full Stop Pact) defined the features of the new democratic regime after years of unstable oligarchical and often violent rule. It led to the power alternation agreement between AD and COPEI under conditions of electoral competition and state control of the oil sector in which agreed upon parameters for public revenue expenditures were respected. While it deteriorated into a lighter version of the current cabal of thieves, it lasted for forty years and only fell because it did not recognise, because of its institutional myopia, the social forces that lay at the root of the Chavez phenomenon and emergence of the Boliviarian movement.

In other words, Venezuela needs a new foundational Pact the provides peaceful exit and entrance strategies to the Boliviarians and their inevitable successors. Otherwise there will be blood whether the imperialists get involved or not.

24 thoughts on “Venezuela Agonistes.

  1. It’s pleasing to know no true Scotsman would ever do the terrible things that Scots have been accused of.

  2. “If we remember the sclerosis of Venezuelan democracy before Chavez appeared on the scene, where the two major parties–Accion Democratic and COPEI–alternated power in a concertative arrangement where elites siphoned off the country’s wealth while buying off popular consent with oil revenue-derived subsides of public goods and services, then we can understand why the back to the future scenario will not work. It will take a sincere effort by fair-minded people on both sides, Boliviarians and Opposition, to recognise that the experiment is over and the country needs a new course that is not a repeat of the past, be it recent or distant.”

    It brings to mind what JFK once said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.”

  3. I remember bumping into a bunch of white upper class Venezuelan exiles at a boat party in Miami several years back. They seemed to be doing OK dollar wise… Not knowing much about Venezuela beyond I had read Chavez was popular, I did by way of trying to be friendly a few “long live Chavez!” comments.

    They didn’t seem very pleased though.

  4. You might as well have passed gas in a crowded elevator. The trouble is that now the Venezuelan exiles have joined with the anti-Castro Cubans to form a reactionary bloc intent on overthrowing both regimes. They are armed, do paramilitary training in the Everglades and have their own TV and radio shows to broadcast virulent propaganda and fake news. So dealing with them is going to be part of the equation in any transition scenario.

  5. Don’t know why all those words were needed when these cartoons give an equally precise synopsis of the argument:

    – Real Socialism:

    – Stateless Socialism – this time:

    – My fave comes from the real McCoy… The World Socialists, except their site’s down due to a security incident so can only show you a copy.

    I do like the final line on that last cartoon though: Real Socialism (never been tried). I wonder why?

  6. My apologies for being off topic, Pablo, but I see that the title of “New Zealand Intelligence Community” has been jointly claimed by the GCSB, SIS and DPMC, seeming to exclude the academic and free lance intelligence operatives who I always assumed were included when you made reference to the “New Zealand intelligence community”.
    Was I wrong, or has the term been more recently and unilaterally appropriated by the state agencies?
    If the latter, will you be using a different term when referring to the combined state and non-state intelligence analysts?

  7. Geoff:

    That was an odd interjection. NZIC properly refers to the state agencies involved in intelligence gathering and analysis such as those that you mention as well as military intelligence units. It also includes the intelligence units of agencies like Immigration, Customs, Treasury, Police, and even those in MBIE. It extends to private security agencies by virtue of the (often revolving door) links to state actors.

    The term does not refer to freelancers or academics unless these are on the public payroll (however covertly). In truth the term is simply short hand for the aggregation of public agencies that deal with intelligence matters.

    FYI, there is a professional association for individuals involved in the NZ intelligence business. Here is the membership page on its web site but feel free to explore:

  8. Hola Pablo

    Nice to see your still monitor the goings on in South America

    A few observations:

    Venezuela’s situation reminds me of a non fiction novel I read in which the main character explained communism as a ” failed social experiment ”
    ( A slightly different ‘ism’ but the same result!)

    Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution was a case of ” Good intentions, poor reflections ”

    For all the hype and bluster, I remember Chavez as
    getting leaders of other South American Nations to start
    talking to each other. Some interesting initiatives, just poorly executed.

  9. Thanks Edward.

    I do indeed continue to follow all things Latinoamericano, especially in my adopted country Argentina (you may remember that I visited there last year).

    The trouble with Chavez is that he really did not have a strong ideological line and was overcome by his ego and his reliance on oil revenues to finance his social projects at a time when oil prices skyrocketed due to 9/11. That was unsustainable on the face of it but he either did not care or was ignorant of the inevitable downturn in prices. Add to that the disloyal opposition that almost succeeded in ousting him with the W. Bush administration’s knowledge and tacit approval, and his decision to seek alliances with non-traditional partners such as Syria, Iran, the DPRK, Hezbollah, Cuba and Nicaragua. That mix sealed the slide into electoral populist authoritarianism whereby he used rigged elections to legitimate his increasingly autocratic rule, which in turn grew more isolated within Latin America (even from other Left regimes). From then on it became a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the Venezuelan upper and middle classes abandoned the country, thereby removing much of the managerial class, which he then filled with incompetent partisans who increasingly stole and resorted to repression to cover their tracks. Maduro is the epitome of this type of leadership.

  10. ” Chavez as
    getting leaders of other South American Nations to start
    talking to each other.”

    I’m pretty sure there was plenty of dialogue between Latin American leaders prior to Chavez coming to power. The Organization of American States has met every year, and every Latin American country (except Cuba) is a member. This alone shows an ongoing dialogue that well predates Chavez; and that’s before we talk about various bilateral or trilateral summits, e.g. Fujimori’s visit to Argentina.

    I’m not saying that Chavez didn’t do some good things, or at least try to do some good things, but inter-Latin American diplomacy happened before he came to power.

  11. Truth be told Chavez divided more than he united on the regional scale. His attempt to start a new trade bloc to compete with Mercosur (ALBA) did very little other than irritate economic elites (which was part of his point). He eventually alienated major regional allies like Brazil under Lula and Chile under Bachelete (although the Chilean Socialists were always skeptical of him and his promises). You may recall the infamous meeting between Latin American and Spanish leaders where King Juan Carlos barked at him “porque no the callas?” in what was considered eye-dropping breech of royal etiquette instigated by his buffoonish interjections. Although I must say that his references to the devil in the speech he gave to the UN right after W. Bush was quite funny.

    He was correct in his denunciation of the OAS as a US hand puppet and his critique of US imperialism–and the history of imperialism dating back to colonial times–in Latin America was generally accurate. But as I said, his personal hubris began to undermine his legacy long before bowel cancer got to him (there is a whole story about how he refused treatment for the disease until it was too late because he believed “those” type of cancers were “gay” diseases and he of course could not possibly be of such a persuasion and therefore could not have such a disease).

    I got to watch his two coup attempts against the oligarchic democracy in the early 1990s from a USG vantage point. They were characterised by ineptitude, especially from a supposedly elite commando. I then got to watch the 2002 attempted coup against him from NZ, where again, ineptitude was the signature of his opponents. More recently I watched the failed drone attack on Maduro. Perhaps there is something about Venezuelans that makes them incapable of carrying out effective forced interruptions of government, which could explain why the opposition based out of Florida are so desperate for the yanks to militarily intervene.

  12. I see socialism as a term that represents a triangular field of possibilities, not a fixed point. At one corner libertarian-socialism, which I call anarchism; at another corner authoritarian-socialism, which I call communism; at the corner near where capitalism and socialism converge, which I call social-democracy; the last point is the centre of all three, which I call democratic-socialism.

    When someone says just socialism to mean a specific thing it could be any one of these points in the field and therefore it is rather useless as a term. Capitalism is also rather useless as a political term, it could mean fascism, libertarianism, conservatism, or social-democracy, etc.

    Capitalism and socialism should not really be used as political terms because they are too broad in scope.

  13. “Capitalism and socialism should not really be used as political terms because they are too broad in scope.”

    As the Political Compass ( once asked, “The old one-dimensional categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’, established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today’s complex political landscape. For example, who are the ‘conservatives’ in today’s Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher?

    On the standard left-right scale, how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi? It’s not sufficient to say that Stalin was simply more left than Gandhi. There are fundamental political differences between them that the old categories on their own can’t explain. Similarly, we generally describe social reactionaries as ‘right-wingers’, yet that leaves left-wing reactionaries like Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot off the hook.

    That’s about as much as we should tell you for now.”

  14. If you’re getting your views on political philosophy from the Political Compass website, you’re in no position to be castigating anybody else for insufficiently precise analysis

  15. Interesting schematic, James. I think that we need to distinguish between economic and political forms and not confuse or blend the two. Capitalism and socialism are types of economic organization, or productive forms if you will. Authoritarianism and democracy are types of governance, or political forms. The combination of economic and political forms makes for a specific regime type, e.g., authoritarian capitalist, authoritarian socialist, democratic capitalist and democratic socialist. From there on the specific sub-types of each broad category are determined by context and circumstance. So fascism was a particular type of interwar European (state) capitalist authoritarianism based on a heavy industrialization war-mongering economic project with mass mobilization under single party direction with charismatic leadership and corporatist forms of interest aggregation and intermediation.

    In history the authoritarian capitalist form has predominated–one can speculate as to why that is so or whether there are “natural” affinities between capitalism and authoritarianism. For its part, Stalinism was a particular combination of forced collectivist industrialization and one party authoritarianism. Populism is yet another subtype of authoritarianism, although it uses electoral legitimation as a vehicle for regime reproduction.

    It is these distinctions that make me cringe when people call the Boliviarian experiment “socialist.”

  16. I think it is fair and accurate to call Boliviarian Venezuela socialist. And that it is also fair and accurate to call the USSR, Kurdish Syria, and Sweden in the 1970s socialist. It is a term that can be so broadly applied that it is useless in most circumstances. Likewise Nazi Germany, the US, UK, or again Sweden, can all be called capitalist. No doubt some libertarians or the like hate to be associated with all sorts of different kinds of capitalism that isn’t the version they support.

    The extremes of either end of the capitalism-socialism scale each encourage authoritarianism in about equal measure I’d say. It is the extremeness of the ideology that encourages the authoritarianism, not the particular nature of whether capitalism or socialism is used.

    NZ and the rest of the West is too far in capitalism’s territory at the moment. We are out of balance.

    As for Boliviarian Venezuela I’d say it started out as populist, a mid-point between open democracy and dictatorship, but has recently become dictatorial.

    In loose terms populism is based in “othering” a minority (in socialist cases the rich, in the more common capitalist cases immigrants). The turn to dictatorship is based in rule through fear of the states leadership.

    The road to dictatorship usually goes through populism first. United States and European Union beware.

  17. Extreme far left and extreme far right are not the same thing. There is a big difference between a horseshoe and a closed circle. Criticism of horseshoe theory assumes that the ends of the horseshoe touch, they miss the point that it’s horseshoe theory, not circular theory for a reason.

    As for me I’d say there is about the same distance between extreme far left and extreme far right as there is between either one and the absolute centre.

  18. “As for me I’d say there is about the same distance between extreme far left and extreme far right as there is between either one and the absolute centre.”

    That is the very definition of horseshoe theory.

  19. “Proponents of Horseshoe Theory argue that the extreme left and the extreme right are closer to each other than either is to the political center”

    “The horseshoe theory competes with the conventional linear left–right continuum system as well as the various multidimensional systems.”

    No, it is specifically about the two extremes being more similar than different, rather than being the same distance as in my modal—which is based on a multidimensional system.

  20. Any theory that postulates that the left-right spectrum is wraparound rather than linear is a version of horseshoe theory. Differences as to precisely what degree it’s wraparound are differences within the theory.

  21. You’re stuck in a rut of only thinking that there are two possible theories: the one-dimensional left-right system, and then everything that isn’t specifically that, which you call horseshoe theories.

    You would make a crap farrier.

  22. Pablo… Thinking back on other infamous meetings…

    Do you remember the one of Bush Senior and Castro
    at the Earth Summit in Brazil 1992 ??

    They were standing next to each other yet they couldn’t
    even look each other in the face

  23. To Erewhon:

    Interesting that you should mention your profession.

    I want to provoke some thoughts about the following:

    Political ideologies – capitalism, communism, socialism and any other isms out there are all systems of control.
    The one system common to all of them is the monetary system – what determines cost and value.

    So if peoples wanted to bring about a revolution then perhaps the most effective way to do it is to change
    the monetary system

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *