Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Maduro is not Chavez

Nicolas Maduro's authoritarianism is destroying the defiant participatory democracy his predecessor set up in Venezuela.

Venezuela, as Noam Chomsky recently pointed out is really in a disaster situation. "The corruption, the robbery and so on, has been extreme … especially after Hugo Chavez's death," Chomsky said. This statement should not be read as an admission of guilt by one of the many leftist activists, economists, and politicians (including Julian Assange, Josep Stiglitz, and Jeremy Corbyn) who praised Chavez's Bolivarian revolution. In this statement Chomsky is simply marking a failed opportunity by Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, to continue his socialist policies.

The fact that Steve Bannon's Breitbart News is using the current crisis in Venezuela to dismiss these leftist intellectuals is a sign that they were on the right track. Nonetheless, Venezuela is now in a disaster situation, and both Maduro's authoritarianism and the opposition's violence are to blame.

The US intervention

It is important to remember how successful Chavez's policies were during his time in office between 1998 and 2013. "Impressive gains," the historian Greg Grandin recalls, were achieved "in healthcare, 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". But a lot has changed since Chavez passed away almost five years ago.

The economic and social crisis that Venezuela is now experiencing under the leadership of Maduro raises questions not only about whether he was the right successor to Chavez but also about how Chavez's death was used as an opportunity to try once again to take over the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

While condemning the ongoing authoritarianism (suspension of basic rights), repression (of 13,941 arbitrary detentions, 94 percent occurred during anti-crime operations mainly in poor neighbourhoods), and violence (security forces killed 126 people, 46 in extra-judicial executions, and 28 when they were in police or military custody) it is also necessary to recall the enormous damage Washington caused through its pursuit of "regime change" during the last decades in Venezuela. As Mark Weisbrot, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, pointed out, ignoring the US intervention in Venezuela is like reporting on Ukraine without mentioning Russia.

Washington's obsession with Chavez's Bolivarian revolution has to do with his plan to reverse the neoliberal dream of turning petroleum into a pure commodity whose value is set exclusively by the market. Although this was about to take place when Chavez was first elected in 1998, "his oil policy", Grandin says, "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".

A negotiated solution is necessary between the opposition and Maduro. But in order for both parties to sit at a negotiating table, the opposition must stop the violent blockades of basic goods, and Maduro must immediately schedule state, local, and presidential elections.

These oil policies, together with the desire to bring about Bolivar's dream of an independent and united Latin America, is what caused Washington to support a coup in 2002 and more recently spend millions of dollars to fund opposition groups. 

The problem with the Venezuelan opposition (most of its leaders are part of the wealthy white elite) is not it's denunciation of Maduro's repressive policies, which should be roundly denounced, but rather that it is designed to achieve regime change in spite of the fact that the Chavistas reached power by legitimate means and continue to enjoy a significant degree of popular support. Furthermore, as Steve Ellner reported in The Nation, "the opposition consistently employs tactics of mass civil disobedience even though these mobilizations are accompanied by the destructive actions of small bands of combatants". These are the combatants who refused in April 2013 to "recognize Maduro's democratic victory, despite zero evidence of fraud" (Jimmy Carter once called Venezuela's electoral system among "the best in the world") and whose protests targeted government-run health clinics and other public institutions, resulting in at least seven civilian casualties.

Predictably, opposition's only goal is not to oust Maduro but also to privatise Venezuela's public services and to bring the social reforms brought forward by Chavez to an end. For example, as soon as they took over the National Assembly in 2015, they immediately tried to put an end to the successful social housing project.

Maduro's authoritarianism

It is necessary to criticise the Western mainstream media for giving the opposition a free pass despite their campaign of terror, but it is also important to recognise and denounce the Maduro government's increasing authoritarianism.

This authoritarianism is more than a response to the fall of oil prices in the international market and the US economic sanctions, which caused the hardship and hyperinflation. It is also the result of Maduro's temperament. Unlike Chavez, who often managed to resolve social tension or make unexpected alliances at key moments, Maduro easily falls for provocations. This is why, as Grandin says, Maduro "responded to extremists in the opposition by assuming everyone in the opposition is an extremist, presiding over an ineffective and incoherent mix of distributivist carrots and repressive sticks, aimed not so much at consolidating his personal power as at digging in a besieged and out-of-touch revolutionary bureaucracy".

It is this temperament that has recently led Maduro to cancel the recall of a referendum (which was constitutionally legal); suspend municipal and regional elections; and inhibit an opposition politician, Henrique Capriles, from standing for office. It also explains his inability to tackle corruption (according to a Chavez administration vice minister, the number of officials involved in corruption is huge).

In this way, as the political sociologist Gabriel Hetland points out, Maduro is "systematically blocking the ability of the Venezuelan people to express themselves through electoral means". Another indication that Maduro has moved away from his predecessor's politics is his decision to open a mineral-rich open-pit mine that Chavez closed in 2009 over ecological concerns. It is understandable that social movements, environmental activists, and indigenous communities are all unsatisfied with Maduro.

Today Venezuela is a polarised country on the verge of a civil war. A negotiated solution is necessary between the opposition and Maduro. But in order for both parties to sit at a negotiating table, the opposition must stop the violent blockades of basic goods, and Maduro must immediately schedule state, local, and presidential elections. Only in this way will the "participatory and protagonist democracy" that Chavez set up survive.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA research professor of philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

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