What Is to Be Done in Venezuela?

An ad-hoc Committee to Save Venezuela offers observations and recommendations that differ from those found in our missionary mainstream media.



The news from Venezuela is grim: A “fall in oil prices, soaring interest rates…have intensified an already deep-rooted recession. The country is being pauperized. It has the highest inflation in Latin America, increasing unemployment and more than 40 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty.” With economic immiseration comes political violence: Over the course of one year, “security forces killed 126 people, 46 in extra-judicial executions, and 28 when they were in police or military custody. Authoritarianism and repression are growing. Of 13,941 arbitrary detentions, 94 percent occurred during anti-crime operations mainly in poor neighborhoods.… Violent death has become a feature of Venezuelan life. On Monday mornings, the newspapers carry a grim roll call of those killed in stabbings and shootings in the city’s slums. The figure often reaches 40 or 50, mostly young, male and poor.”


There are “frequent riots,” the suspension of basic rights, and daily police raids in “poor shanty towns to root out alleged subversives. Rising street crime and violence in Caracas” is skyrocketing. Prisons are a Dantesque nightmare: “More than 30 prisoners were killed in a riot and fire at a jail in central Caracas yesterday.” Earlier, another prison riot protesting conditions led to “more than 100 inmates [being] burned or hacked to death.”


“All this,” writes one reporter—the shortages of basic goods, including medicine; dysfunctional hospitals; a spiraling murder rate; protests and riots; prison massacres, loss of basic rights; political prisoners and state repression; falling oil prices—“makes Venezuela one of the most important economic stories in the Americas at the moment.”


Why, the reporter wanted to know, aren’t the US media paying attention?


Wait. What? Not paying attention? What is she talking about? There is no shortage of reporting on Venezuela’s crisis, with pastoral pundits who preach remedies to exit same, worrying over Caracas while ignoring the ongoing coup in Brazil (which just witnessed an anti-austerity general strike that saw the estimated participation of 40 million workers). Few news consumers in the United States would know that the murder rate in Colombia is ticking up, as right-wing paramilitaries, nervous about the peace deal worked out between the FARC guerrillas and the government, target activists. According to Reuters, last year in Colombia “117 rights activists were killed compared with 105 in 2015, with many murders attributed to shadowy right-wing paramilitary groups furious that Marxist FARC guerrillas have been allowed to join society and form a political party under a historic peace deal.” Venezuela runs nonstop on cable news, topped perhaps only by Trump, Putin, Michael Flynn, and somebody named Carter Page. Writing in The New York Times, Mexico’s former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda wants to save Venezuela through diplomatic isolation but feels, alas, that a United States led by Donald Trump is in no moral position to do so.


Well, the reason the grim news from Venezuela recounted above wasn’t obsessively covered in the United States is because it was from 1996, two years before Hugo Chávez was elected president, when the country was governed by a Washington ally.


OK, that’s the easy part of this post: noting the bias in US media and indexing crisis reporting to the general worldview of the State Department. But Venezuelans are today living through an extended period of social and political misery, and, despite the need to always contextualize the catastrophe, Bolivarianism was supposed to be a model of development, a beacon for progressives.


For a while it was, achieving impressive gains in health care, life expectancy, education, and social security; radically expanding political participation, bringing the excluded and marginal into the debate and giving diverse social movements access to political power; and charting a foreign policy independent from Washington. Now that model is in ruins. It’s easy to criticize Chavismo for riding high oil prices. That critique, however accurate, captures only half the story: Chávez, and his cohort of oil diplomats, largely helped create those high oil prices, revitalizing OPEC, affirming Venezuela’s commitment to OPEC production quotas and pricing, and working with non-OPEC energy-producing countries, like Brazil and Mexico, to reverse the neoliberal dream (which when Chávez was first elected, in 1998, was on the point of coming true) of turning petroleum into a pure commodity whose value is set by market demand, to repoliticize oil and use it as an instrument to achieve political objectives.


Chávez’s oil policy was heir to the great vision of the New International Economic Order of the 1970s, which saw high petroleum prices as a way to tax the First World, and then redistribute that revenue through equitable social programs, solidarity, and support for poor energy-importing nations, and an oppositional foreign policy. Thus many of Barack Obama’s energy initiatives, especially when Hillary Clinton was at the State Department, were counterstrikes against this repoliticization of oil: promoting fracking, not just in the United States but worldwide; wooing of Mexico away from Venezuela while promoting the privatization of PEMEX, Mexico’s state-run oil industry; turning Central America into one big biofuel plantation (that’s one of the things the 2009 coup in Honduras was about). It worked. When Chávez died, in early 2013, oil prices collapsed and Venezuela skidded into catastrophe. For good or bad, we will never again witness a political movement that credibly holds up oil as a solution to humanity’s problems.


Shortly after Chávez’s death, an unexpectedly close vote put his successor, Nicolás Maduro, in power. The opposition, made giddy by its unexpectedly strong electoral performance and believing the restoration of their class and race privilege was within reach, returned to its maximalist program of antagonism, launching deadly street protests meant to heighten the contradictions and bring international rebuke. Maduro, for his part, possesses neither Chávez’s petrodollar surplus nor his political skills. As I wrote here in 2003: “Chávez’s charisma, his light touch despite his often rhetorical bombast, his ability to bring some key opponents back into the fold, to make unexpected alliances, helped defuse social tension at key moments. It’s one of the reasons why Venezuela, despite an often excess of extreme rhetoric, didn’t spiral into the kind of violence often associated with other revolutions.” That state of grace has ended.


Follow the link to see the source article published by The Nation May 1, 2017.



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