The sources of Maduro’s crisis

April 5, 2017

On March 29, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled that the National Assembly--controlled since the last elections by the right-wing opposition--was in contempt of the constitution and took over its duties. After protests broke out in Caracas, and the country's attorney general criticized the Court, President Nicolás Maduro convened an emergency National Security Council meeting. In response, the Supreme Court partially reversed itself.

This was the latest constitutional clash between Maduro's government and the right-wing opposition that swept National Assembly elections in December 2015. Since then, the Court and the National Assembly have been engaged in a tug of war over the fate of three opposition legislators whom the Court ruled had attained their seats through electoral fraud. Seating the three has become a major issue: If they were in the legislature, the opposition would have the two-thirds majority it would need to make far-reaching decisions.

With the economy in a free fall as the price of oil--the country's main source of foreign exchange and revenue for social programs--has collapsed, workers have endured high prices, shortages of basic consumer goods and government corruption. Former President Hugo Chávez's once-popular vision of "socialism for the 21st century" has lost support.

In an article that appeared in Spanish at La Diaria, an independent daily newspaper in Uruguay, Edgardo Lander, a sociologist at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and longtime social movement activist, analyzed the implosion of Venezuela's rentier economic model, the right's attempts to seize on the crisis, and the move by Maduro's government to curtail democratic rights. The interview was translated into English by Lance Selfa.

THREE YEARS ago, you characterized the situation in Venezuela as the "implosion of the petroleum rentier model." Do you think that characterization still holds?

SADLY, THE problems with the exhaustion of the petroleum rentier model have gotten worse.

Venezuela has had an oil industry for 100 years, along with state-centered policies that revolve around how oil rents are distributed. This has not only consolidated a model of state and party, but also a political culture that sees Venezuela as a rich country, full of resources, and the notion that political action consists of organizing to get something from the state. That is the permanent logic.

In the Bolivarian process, despite many speeches to the contrary, that logic was intensified. From the economic point of view, these policies actually accentuated Venezuela's neocolonial insertion in the international division of labor. The collapse of oil prices simply revealed something that was already evident when you depend on a commodity whose prices necessarily fluctuate.

The Venezuelan National Assembly in Caracas
The Venezuelan National Assembly in Caracas

CRITICISMS OF the state of democratic rights in Venezuela have increased since Nicolás Maduro became president. Why is that? How do you compare that with the climate under the government of Hugo Chávez?

FIRST, YOU have to take note of what took place in the transition from Chávez to Maduro. I'm of the opinion that the problems we're facing today were building up under Chávez.

The leftist analyses that hold up the Chávez era as a glorious time, where everything was humming along, before the incompetent traitor Maduro suddenly appeared, are too Manichean [i.e., black and white]. They don't allow us to tease out the structural logic that has brought us to the current crisis.

The Venezuelan process, to speak pretty schematically, was always dependent on two fundamental pillars: one, Chávez's extraordinary ability to communicate and to provide leadership that mobilized a social force; and two, oil prices that reached upwards of $100 dollars per barrel.

Right about the same time, in 2013, both of these collapsed. Chávez died, and oil prices plunged. The emperor was left wearing no clothes. It's clear that the whole process was fragile, because it depended on things that it couldn't continue to depend on.

What's more, there are crucial differences between the leadership styles of Chávez and of Maduro.

Chávez was a leader who had the ability to provide an orientation. He also had extraordinary clout within the government, so that when he decided something, that was the decision. That led to a lack of debate and many mistakes, but it also produced united and purposeful action.

Maduro has none of Chávez's ability, and has never had it. In the government today, it's everyone for themselves.

On the other hand, under Maduro's government, there has been an increased militarization in society. Maduro doesn't come from the military, so to guarantee the armed forces' support, he's had to integrate the armed forces more into the running of the state, and to grant them more privileges. Military-owned enterprises have been created.

Today, military officers run one-third of government ministries and one-half of state governments [i.e., they are governors]. They are in charge of critical areas, where there have been high levels of corruption: allocation of foreign exchange, ports, food distribution. The fact that these are under military control makes it more difficult for the people to find out what is going on.

WHAT HAPPENED to the social mobilization that the Bolivarian government encouraged?

TODAY IN Venezuela, the fabric of society is unraveling.

There was an extraordinarily rich experience of social organization, of grassroots organizing, of movements for health care, for telecommunications, for urban land rights and for literacy, involving millions and generating a culture of confidence, of solidarity, of feeling able to determine our future. One assumed that, in times of crisis, people would respond collectively. But that didn't happen.

Of course, I speak in very crude terms. There are places with a greater capacity for collective organization. But in general terms, it's the case that most people are reacting in competitive and individualistic ways. Still, I think collective struggle could break through at any time.

WHY COULDN'T the movements from below sustain themselves?

FROM THE beginning, the process was shot through with a very serious contradiction. That was the contradiction between understanding grassroots mobilization as a process of self-organization and democratic control--of weaving a social fabric from the bottom up--and the fact that the majority of these organizations were formed and promoted by the state, from the top down.

This contradiction played itself out in different ways. Where there was a pre-existing experience of organization, where there was a strong collective leadership, there was an ability to confront the state. Not to reject it, but to negotiate with it.

Moreover, starting in 2005, the Bolivarian process shifted from something very open, in search of a social model distinct from neoliberal capitalism and from the old Soviet model, into something that declared itself socialist, but was primarily statist. Cuba exercised a major political and ideological influence in this transformation.

Then, these organizations begin to be thought of as instruments directed from above, and a Stalinist culture begins to take shape. And that has obviously weakened organization from below.

HOW DO you see the situation in terms of democratic rights?

OBVIOUSLY, IT'S much more serious under Maduro. It's more serious because the government has lost a tremendous amount of legitimacy, and increasing numbers of people are turning their backs on the government.

The opposition has expanded significantly. The government had control of all of the levers of public power until it lost the parliament to the opposition in December 2015.

From that point, it started to act in increasingly authoritarian ways. First, it refused to seat the Assembly, trying to throw out results from one state the opposition won, on a technicality. Later, it refused to recognize the Assembly at all. From the Maduro government's point of view, the Assembly doesn't exist--it is completely illegitimate.

So much so that a few months ago, when the terms of members of the National Electoral Council (CNE) expired, the Supreme Court bypassed the Assembly and named all the CNE members--they named, of course, all Chavistas. At the beginning of the year, Maduro had to present his plan for governing this year. He boycotted the Assembly and instead presented it to the Supreme Court. The same happened with the budget.

The opposition started the constitutional process to recall Maduro. The opposition had followed all of the legal steps, and by last November, it had collected enough signatures to force a vote. The Supreme Court stepped in and postponed the process. This effectively killed the recall. [Translator's note: By law, if the recall took place before January 10, 2017, Maduro and his party could have been removed. After January 10, any recall vote would replace Maduro with the vice president, another Chavista, who would serve out Maduro's term.]

The constitution required that elections for state governors be held last December, and again, the government postponed them indefinitely. So we find ourselves in a situation where all power is concentrated in the executive, there is no legislature, and Maduro can rule by decree under a state of emergency for another year. At the end of the year, the Assembly is supposed to vote to extend the state of emergency.

We are far from anything that can be called democratic practice. In this context, challenges from the media and the opposition become increasingly violent, and the government, seemingly unable to act any other way, responds with repression of demonstrations and arrests of political prisoners. It's using all of the tools it has to keep itself in power.

WHAT ARE the long-term consequences of this situation?

I'D SAY that three things are extremely worrying for the medium and long term.

First, the nation's productive capacity has been destroyed, and it will take a tremendous amount of time to recover it. Recently, a presidential decree opened 112,000 square kilometers of the Amazon to transnational mining corporations. This is a region where 10 Indigenous peoples live and where the major sources of country's water are located.

Second, the depth of this crisis is unraveling the social fabric, and as a society, we're worse off than we were under the governments before Chávez. That's a tough thing to say, but that's the reality of the country today.

Third, recent gains in health and nutrition have been reversed. The government has stopped issuing official statistics, so we have to depend on those issued by business organizations and some universities. But those statistics indicate that there has been a systematic decline in the body weight of ordinary Venezuelans, perhaps as much as six kilos [13 pounds] per person. And that, of course, has serious consequences for child malnutrition, with long-term effects.

In sum, all of this has extraordinary consequences for the belief that social change is possible. The idea of socialism, of an alternative to capitalism, has fallen by the wayside in Venezuela. Instead, what's taken hold is the idea that anything having to do with the public sector is inherently inefficient and corrupt. It's a disaster.

HOW DO you evaluate the reactions to what's happening in Venezuela on the part of the international left, especially from the Latin American left?

I BELIEVE that one of the problems that has dogged the left historically has been its extraordinary difficulty in learning from experience. To learn from experience, it's absolutely necessary to think critically about what is happening and why it is happening.

Of course, we know all about the complicity of the Communist Parties in the crimes of Stalinism. There's no lack of information. It wasn't that we found out about the crimes of Stalin after they happened. Rather, there was a complicity that has to do with the criterion of whether one is anti-imperialist or whether one is confronting imperialism, no matter how many people they kill, we won't say anything.

I think this way of understanding solidarity as unconditional solidarity--because they use the discourse of the left, or because they adopt anti-imperialist postures, or because geopolitically, they express contradictions with dominant sectors of the global system--leads us away from critically investigating what is happening in these processes.

Thus, it generates blind, uncritical solidarity, which not only has the consequence that I will not criticize, but that I will actively celebrate many of the things that end up being extraordinarily negative. The so-called "hyper-leadership" of Chávez was obvious from the start. Or the extractivist economic model. What the genuine left knows about that [extractivism] today was known years ago, too.

So why not open a debate on these things so that we can think critically about them and propose ways forward?

We don't want the European left to tell us how to make the revolution, but neither do we need uncritical cheerleading that justifies anything. That says political prisoners aren't political prisoners, or that says the deterioration of the economy is just a product of the opposition's economic war or only the fault of the international right. The attack from the right is certainly a key factor, but obviously it's insufficient as an explanation for the deep crisis we're living through.

The Latin American left has a historical responsibility in relation to, for example, the situation in Cuba today. During the many years of the economic blockade, the left assumed that it couldn't criticize Cuba. But not criticizing Cuba meant not having the possibility of reflecting critically on Cuban society and exploring possibilities for dialog about a way forward.

For a great portion of the Cuban population, the fact that they have reached a dead end is obvious on an individual level, but the Cuban government wouldn't allow that to be expressed. The Latin American left avoided it and didn't contribute anything. But it offered unconditional solidarity.

The most extreme case is to claim that the government of Nicaragua is a revolutionary government and an ally to the left, when, in reality, it's a government of mafias--absolutely corrupt and, from the point of view of women's rights, one of the most repressive regimes in Latin America. It's totally allied with the most corrupt sectors of the bourgeoisie, with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church--which, in the past, was one of the biggest enemies of the Nicaraguan revolution.

How does this happen? It reinforces the most negative tendencies one could have imagined. But still, we don't learn.

If we understand the struggle for an anti-capitalist transformation not as something that happens "over there," that we are merely going to stand in solidarity with, but, instead, as a collective struggle that involves all of thus, then what mistakes you make affect us, too. So I have the responsibility to point that out and to learn from that experience so as not to make the same mistake.

But we don't have the capacity to learn, because suddenly, when the Venezuelan model ends up collapsing, we'll look somewhere else. And that, as solidarity, as internationalism, as political-intellectual responsibility, is disastrous.

WHY DO you think the left takes this position?

I THINK it has to do, in part, with the fact that on the left, we haven't gotten away from one-dimensional thinking about what's at stake.

If we think that what's at stake is a class perspective and anti-imperialism, we approach it one way. But we need to think of today's transformation as involving those things, but also involving a critical feminist perspective, new ways of relating to the natural world, or thinking about democracy not as a set of bourgeois norms to be cast aside, but as something to deepen and extend.

We need to think of transformation as being multidimensional because domination is multidimensional. Why do we give uncritical support to left governments that relegate the rights of Indigenous peoples, the environment or women to lesser importance? Then we end up measuring anti-capitalist transformation from a very monolithic idea from the past, not dealing with reality today.

Obviously, what good is it to free ourselves from U.S. imperialism if we end up in the same relationship with China? It's a political, theoretical and maybe even generational problem--of people who saw this as their last chance to win an alternative society and can't admit that it failed.

First published in Spanish at La Diaria. Translated by Lance Selfa, with assistance from Eva Maria and Jeffrey R. Webber.

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