To my Chavista Friends
First of all I know many of you must be doing some soul searching right now. I’ve spent the past two years retracing my steps and trying to understand the nature of the Bolivarian project I once supported and why I supported it.
The latter question I can easily answer: President Hugo Chávez proposed a “Twenty-First Century Socialism” that would be different from the nightmare socialism of the twentieth century, the “real socialism.” He proposed an anti-imperialist bloc of Latin American countries that would unite in solidarity against international capitalism in the construction of a definitive economic, political and cultural independence. He proposed “endogenous development,” a version of “import substitution industrialization” that would develop Venezuela from the ground up, using cooperative, decentralized structures, like community councils and worker cooperatives, locally-based health centers, community centers and socially-based and socially-directed production, all funded by the massive amount of oil money coming into the country. He proposed “participatory, protagonistic democracy” by which the people would be able to tear down the old, corrupt state and build a “communal” state with their own efforts, replacing “representative” democracy with direct democratic action. He proposed to eliminate poverty, illiteracy and, most importantly, corruption, the scourge of the nation—in fact, the scourge of all petro-states.
I supported all of that for over nine years, until I recognized that he had failed, on nearly every point. His project had wrecked on corruption, ineptitude, bad administration, and lack of follow-through on the great majority of projects. Worse, the 15 years of Chavismo, funded by the largest oil boom in history, left the country economically worse off than it was before. The great project of social transformation proved to be little more than another populist project of a caudillo that did little to redistribute power to the people, but only ended up creating a new elite.
Let’s start with “Twenty-First Century Socialism,” and its corollary, “endogenous development” (remember when they used to talk about that? It’s been many years…). If we manage to get past the mound of rhetoric that surrounds the idea of “Twenty-First Century Socialism,” we find an enormous empty space. If socialism means (as Marx might define it) a “new mode of production,” then I think I could assert without fear of contradiction, that it doesn’t exist in Venezuela: neither socialist production, nor any other kind. It’s clear from the statistics that the only thing the Bolivarian government under Chávez and Maduro has managed to do in the course of fifteen or so years is to destroy capitalist production in the country. In fact, the word “endogenous development” has long gone out of use because currency and price controls have made any sort of local economic development impossible. Even capitalists, hoping to turn a profit in the most business unfriendly environment in the world have been failing—but I exaggerate: it only ranks near the bottom, at 186 of a possible 189—South Sudan, Libya and Eritrea all beat Venezuela for first through third place as the worst countries to do business.
To sum up, “Twenty-First Century Socialism” is the first “socialism” in the world based on a mode of no production, and the super-exploitation of foreign labor in the form of imported commodities.
Now of course some of my friends might think this a good thing since, for them, “capitalist business” of any kind is a bad thing. But most recognize that until we can figure out how to efficiently implement a “new mode of production” we are essentially stuck with capitalism. Smarter friends will even recognize that any new mode of production will in fact be developed out of capitalist production, so that it is, in a sense, in our interests to protect capitalist production until we begin to find a way to “socialize” it, as it were, if that’s what we wish to do. But that wasn’t the approach of Chávez or Maduro. I will refer my Chavista friends to my last book for the statistics, or the last article I was able to publish at Counterpunch online, but I don’t think anyone needs to read them to understand that there is no “endogenous development,” whether socialist, capitalist, or any other kind, in Venezuela today.
To the contrary, the country is more dependent than any time in its history on imports, but less able to pay for them; the infrastructure is falling apart, the productive apparatus of the country has seen an 80% drop this year alone, and according to Roger Palacios, coordinator of the Food Sector of the National Worker’s Union (UNT), half a million workers have been thrown into unemployment, and 200,000 into “precarious” conditions as a result of the current economy. You don’t need my book to read that. These were just two bits of information that came out in the few remaining independent newspapers in Venezuela in few days leading up to the December 6 election. And you know, with the Bolivarian government’s strategy of “media hegemony,” independent papers, or media of any kind, are rare these days. But you don’t even need to read the papers if you live in Venezuela to see that the country is living in an economic disaster, with GDP dropping 9% in the last quarter of 2015 alone. And next year, economists agree, it will be even worse.
Certainly the drop in the price of oil had something to do with these problems, but it wasn’t the cause of the problems. Even before the price of oil dropped off a cliff, in August 2014 three reputable and independent universities of Venezuela (Andres Bello Catholic University, the Central University of Venezuela and Simon Bolivar University) put out a study, “Poll on the Conditions of Life in Venezuela 2014” (ENCOVI, for its name in Spanish). At that time, poverty was at 48%, compared to 45% in 1998, but most significantly, extreme poverty rose from the pre-Chavez figure of 18.7% to 23.6%. Moreover, only 2 million of the 30 million Venezuelans said they were beneficiaries of the much-touted “Missions” of Chávez, and of those, only 20% could be categorized as in a condition of “extreme poverty.” The numbers today of those in poverty or extreme poverty are far, far higher.
So, more than a trillion dollars (some US$ 1 trillion 300 billion, according to estimates I’ve seen) have passed through the hands of the Bolivarian government, and what do they have to show for it? Increased poverty at the end of the boom. Saudi Arabia and other petro-states, corrupt as they are, had the sense to save money during the decade-long oil boom this century. Where did all the money go in Venezuela? According to Chavistas like Nicmer Evans, $200 billion went out through corruption, using the currency control itself, which was designed precisely to stop capital flight.
But it’s really the economic policies of the Bolivarian government, specifically, the economic policies of Hugo Chávez, and carried on by Nicolas Maduro, and not some imaginary “economic war” that is to blame for current problems—though I wouldn’t blame the business sector for fighting back against the relentless onslaught of attacks by the government over the past 16 years.
The inflation, most economists agree, is a result of the continuous increase in money supply; the nationalizations and expropriations of functional businesses and industries (like the concrete industry) has destroyed productivity: all the nationalized industries are now producing at around 25 or so percent of capacity. Only Polar Industries and a few others stand out in Venezuela as productive enterprises, and they are under constant attack by the government. And, as one writer put it, “it's really in the popular (working and poor classes) zones where the economic crisis has hit with the greatest fury, pulverizing salaries and draining the markets and condemning the public and private productive apparatus to a paralysis that devastates employment and tends to inflate imports."
My many Chavista friends who live in Venezuela know what I’m talking about, so I needn’t belabor the point. Those who haven’t visited the country in recent years, or who have gone on those nifty “Revolutionary” tours where they are handed from one “minder” to a “stooge” to a “true believer” all the way to and from the airport, never once having a chance to meet with the opposition, well, they might not know what I’m talking about.
But let’s meet this opposition, shall we? Many of you have only sat down to have a heart to heart talk with someone in your own family, a poor benighted oppositionist who “can’t see what’s happening in the country.” But you’d never want to sit down and have a sincere conversation with an “escualido” (quisling) or “apátrida” (countryless, i.e. traitor to the homeland), or “ultraderecha fascista (extreme right fascist) or “golpistas” (coup-plotters). That’s just not done by Chavistas, right? There are so many disqualifications between you and the Opposition that it seems impossible to clear them away to see the people.
So let me introduce you to one and let’s start with just-elected Tamara Adrian, the first transgender National Assembly person of the Americas. She is part of the Democratic Unity Roundtable, a member of that “ultraderecha” party, which happens to think of itself as Social Democratic and is part of the Socialist International, Popular Will(Voluntad Popular). Yes, that’s the party founded by Leopoldo López, the “ultra-derecha golpista” who is currently serving a 13-year-9-month sentence for sending “subliminal messages” of treason. He’s in prison because, as the Opposition is fond of pointing out, there is no longer a separation of powers in Venezuela, so the Executive (President) of the country can tell a judge to send someone to prison, and off they go. That simple.
Tamara Adrian hasn’t been able to get the Bolivarian government to recognize her new gender identity. She’s hoping that what she, and many others, view as a broad, democratic coalition will begin to implement legislation and policies, effective policies, to grant her rights denied by the “Revolution.” And while you’re at it, you’ll find a lot of your old comrades over there in the Opposition you can schmooze with since there at least six social democratic, democratic socialist and communist parties at the core of the coalition. No doubt you’ll run into Americo de Grazia and Andrés Velásquez from Radical Cause, the latter who oversaw the whole process of participatory budgeting in Ciudad Guayana when he was the governor of the Bolívar State; Ismael Garcia, the politician and union leader from Movement to Socialism (MAS); red-diaper baby, Jesus “Cheo” Torrealba, as Secretary General of the whole schmear who went from radical journalism to leading the democratic opposition to the increasingly authoritarian Chavista project, and so many more.
But that brings me to another point—and I’m sorry if I leap around a bit, since it’s very difficult to touch on all the lies that make up the Chavista narrative about reality: One has an enormous fictional territory to (un)cover when attempting to arrive on Venezuelan reality. I no longer use that word, “revolution,” in relation to Venezuela, unless I’m referring to the Democratic Revolution of 1958. Using that word to describe the populist process under the caudillo Hugo Chavez and his hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro would be akin to referring to Stalin’s Soviet Union as somehow resembling “communism.” Certainly, in both cases, the discrepancy was resolved by a complete redefinition of the terms: the formerly liberatory word “communist,” meaning a final (mythic) state of common ownership and production without the coercion of workers by a state, came to mean a bureaucratic dictatorship without even pretense of democratic or popular procedures or power. And now, at least now, “Twenty-First Century Socialism” has come to be the term for that disaster that has wrecked a country that was once called “Venezuela Saudita” and viewed as the only Latin American nation that would soon enter the “First World.” In those days, in fact, it looked an awful lot like the Venezuela Chávez proposed for the Bolivarian project, but never succeeded in making real.
There’s so much more to be said about all this, but let me propose something here. You may already know that as a petro-state when the price of oil is high, everyone does well in the country, and when it drops, everyone suffers. It’s what Javier Corrales calls the “Ax and Relax” phenomenon. It happens under the Social Democrats, and it happens under the “Right Wing” Christian Democrats alike. Because Chavez used the corruption in his government as a form of cronyism to keep his people under control, and hence allowed it to get completely out of control, especially as he packed the legal system with his cronies, Venezuela lost a huge portion of the money from the recent oil boom to the private accounts of the high-ranking Chavistas. Rafael Ramírez is now being linked to corruption; his sidekick at the U.N., Hugo Chávez’s dear daughter, the “Rice Queen” of Venezuela, Maria Gabriela Chávez is reputedly the richest person in the country, and, well, the list would be far too long to elaborate, especially if we got into the narcotics smuggling that relatives of the First Lady, Cilia Flores, were involved in, when they tried to smuggle 800 kilos of cocaine into the US on a plane flown by a pilot who was active Venezuelan military.
But you see, I did it again. There’s just too much to talk about, isn’t there? But that’s my proposal. Sit down and talk—to the Opposition. Face the facts: The “Bolivarian Revolution” is over. It failed. Then consider together the questions facing you. Where did we go wrong? Why did we unquestioningly give a blank check to a political leader? What did we lose when we traded liberal democracy with its separation of powers, checks and balances, and respect for minority opinions, for the ill-defined “participatory and protagonistic democracy” that excluded half the country? Where do we begin to clean up the wreckage Chávez and Maduro left behind? How can we make a humble gesture of friendship to the Opposition so we can work together to rebuild Venezuela? Where can we begin?
Clifton Ross is a freelance writer and videographer who has been reporting on revolutionary movements in Latin America for over 25 years. He is most recently editor of Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements with Marcy Rein.