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The Venezuelan Dilemma: Progressives and the ‘Plague on Both Your Houses’ Position

By Steve Ellner

In recent weeks, a num­ber of Venezue­lan spe­cial­ists on the left side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum have pub­lished and post­ed pieces that place them in an anti-Chav­ista, “ni-ni” posi­tion that con­sists of “a plague on both your hous­es” with regard to Maduro and the Venezue­lan oppo­si­tion. Cer­tain­ly, at this moment the Chav­is­tas are play­ing hard ball; the options avail­able to them are limited.

I con­sid­er myself a “crit­i­cal Chav­ista.” It’s not an easy posi­tion to be in, par­tic­u­lar­ly because the last thing I would want to do is to act in any way that would favor the right (that is the Venezue­lan oppo­si­tion and its allies abroad). On the oth­er hand, I have always opposed (even in my writ­ing) the posi­tion of some peo­ple on the left who feel that U.S. left­ists should not pub­licly express crit­i­cisms of social­ist gov­ern­ments. Crit­i­cism (includ­ing pub­lic crit­i­cism) is nec­es­sary as it is part of the process of assim­i­lat­ing lessons.

The recent arti­cles that harsh­ly attack the Maduro gov­ern­ment have been pub­lished in Jacobin mag­a­zine by Gabriel Het­land and anoth­er by Mike Gon­za­lez as well as Hetland’s piece post­ed by NACLA: Report on the Amer­i­c­as in which he uses the expres­sion “que se vayan todos.” More recent­ly NACLA post­ed an inter­view with Ale­jan­dro Velas­co that was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the mag­a­zine Nue­va Sociedad.

I know a num­ber of peo­ple in Venezuela and acad­e­mia in the U.S. and else­where who I used to see eye to eye on with regard to Chavez and I now find them express­ing total rejec­tion of and even ani­mos­i­ty toward the gov­ern­ment. The only thing that binds us now is our com­mon sup­port for the need to defend Venezue­lan sov­er­eign­ty, and some­times not even that.



  1. CORRUPTION IS AN EXTREMELY SERIOUS PROBLEM IN VENEZUELA, which the gov­ern­ment has not done near­ly enough to com­bat, though some timid mea­sures have been tak­en (eg. over the last 6 months in the oil industry).
  2. THE GOVERNMENT HAS VIOLATED CERTAIN DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES – the deci­sion to strip Hen­rique Capriles of the right to par­tic­i­pate in elec­tions on grounds of cor­rup­tion; and the delay of the guber­na­to­r­i­al elec­tions; but not the deci­sion not to hold the recall in 2016 (since the oppo­si­tion didn’t have their act togeth­er on that one).
  3. THE NEGATIVE ROLE OF THESTATE APPARATUS AND THE CHAVISTA ELITE” — Velas­co begins his inter­view with these words. I agree that the state bureau­cra­cy and Chav­ista elite have sti­fled inter­nal Chav­ista democ­ra­cy and in doing so have dis­cour­aged mobi­liza­tion. Nev­er­the­less, I also rec­og­nize that this bloc (the Chav­ista bureau­crats) but­tress­es the Chav­ista hold on pow­er as it has a mobi­liza­tion and orga­ni­za­tion­al capac­i­ty that would be lost should Maduro unleash a “rev­o­lu­tion with­in the rev­o­lu­tion.” Hasti­ly turn­ing pow­er over to the rank and file would have dis­as­trous imme­di­ate con­se­quences. Thus, for instance, Chavez’s deci­sion to imple­ment the Plan Guayana Social­ista in which the work­ers chose the pres­i­dents (known as “work­er pres­i­dents”) of state com­pa­nies in the Guayana region was a fail­ure because the labor move­ment in those firms, almost 100 per­cent Chav­ista, went at each other’s throats.
  4. THE CHAVISTA MOVEMENT HAS LOST A LARGE NUMBER OF ITS ACTIVE SUPPORTERS. In addi­tion to the fac­tors named by the “ni-nis” (cor­rup­tion, gov­ern­ment bungling, etc.) there is the fac­tor of “des­gaste” (wear­ing down process over time) which is inevitable and doesn’t in itself reflect neg­a­tive­ly on the Chav­ista lead­er­ship. Eigh­teen years is a long time.


  1. THE MADURO GOVERNMENT IS AUTHORITARIAN OR HEADING IN AN AUTHORITARIAN DIRECTION, which at this point is my most impor­tant dis­agree­ment with the “ni-nis.” Those who make this state­ment nev­er acknowl­edge the impor­tance of con­text. They rec­og­nize, though in some cas­es they play down (not so in the case of Hetland’s Jacobin piece), the vio­lent activ­i­ty unleashed by the oppo­si­tion, but don’t relate the state’s police actions to the chal­lenges it is fac­ing. Just to pro­vide one exam­ple. A total­ly anti-gov­ern­ment hos­tile com­mu­ni­ca­tions media encour­ages the audac­i­ty and extrem­ism of the oppo­si­tion for two rea­sons. First the police and Nation­al Guard are held back from respond­ing firm­ly and with­out hes­i­ta­tion and thus they lose their dis­sua­sive capac­i­ty. And sec­ond, the pro­test­ers them­selves feel empow­ered. Both fac­tors play on each oth­er. In the U.S. or any oth­er coun­try, the cor­po­rate media (and some of the alter­na­tive media) would be com­plete­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to the actions of secu­ri­ty forces, even their excess­es, in a sit­u­a­tion of urban paral­y­sis and urban vio­lence over such an extend­ed peri­od of time (it’s been three and a half months). Fur­ther­more, to use the term “author­i­tar­i­an” when the local media is so sup­port­ive of the oppo­si­tion, is sim­ply mis­lead­ing. It is true that the nation­al TV chan­nels (specif­i­cal­ly Televen, Venevi­sion, and Globo­vi­sion) are less hos­tile to the gov­ern­ment than in 2002–2003 but they (per­haps with the excep­tion of Venevi­sion) are still more pro than anti-oppo­si­tion. But almost all of the impor­tant writ­ten media both nation­al­ly and local­ly are vocal­ly anti-gov­ern­ment. And in the case of the inter­na­tion­al media, the bias has no limits.

Final­ly, there are valid crit­i­cisms of the Chav­ista-cho­sen method­ol­o­gy for the Con­stituent Assem­bly elec­tion to be held on July 30, but that doesn’t make Venezuela author­i­tar­i­an. In 18 years of Chav­ista rule, there has nev­er been plau­si­ble evi­dence of elec­toral fraud. Com­pare that with the dubi­ous legit­i­ma­cy of last month’s elec­tions in the state of Mex­i­co City, hard­ly unique for that nation.

The real ele­phant in the room is the guber­na­to­r­i­al elec­tion of Decem­ber of this year, which the Maduro gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to hold­ing. Those con­tests, to be held in just five months from now, will mea­sure pop­u­lar sup­port. And they will put to the test the demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mit­ment of both the gov­ern­ment and the oppo­si­tion. In my opin­ion the rad­i­cal fringe of the oppo­si­tion would pre­fer to reach pow­er through force in order to crush the Chav­ista move­ment and impose neolib­er­al poli­cies – “shock-treat­ment” style – rather than reach pow­er through elec­toral means, in which case their options would be more limited.

  1. THE GOVERNMENT IS NOT SINCERE ABOUT DIALOGUE, accord­ing to Velas­co – there is no evi­dence one way of the oth­er on this one.
  2. THE CHAVISTA RANK AND FILE HAS LITTLE REASON TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT THE MADURO GOVERNMENT and for that rea­son two mil­lion of them abstained in Decem­ber 2015. Although obvi­ous­ly dis­il­lu­sion­ment is wide­spread, there are many impor­tant rea­sons for pro­gres­sives and pop­u­lar sec­tors to sup­port the Maduro gov­ern­ment: nation­al­is­tic for­eign pol­i­cy, rejec­tion of neolib­er­al type agree­ments with inter­na­tion­al finan­cial insti­tu­tions, social pro­grams that involve com­mu­ni­ty par­tic­i­pa­tion; zero-sum-game poli­cies that favor the pop­u­lar sec­tors (exam­ple: the Bus Rapid Tran­sit – BRT – that in Barcelona-Puer­to La Cruz reserves one of two lanes on the main drag con­nect­ing the two cities to accor­dion-type bus­es at the expense of auto­mo­bile traf­fic); and final­ly Maduro (in spite of all of his short­com­ings as an admin­is­tra­tor and fail­ure to take nec­es­sary bold deci­sions) has proven to be a fight­er and to con­vince his base that he’s not going to go down with­out a strug­gle to the end. He has also attempt­ed to mobi­lize his base; the fail­ure to attempt to do so by Lula and Dil­ma Rouss­eff is a major rea­son why the impeach­ment against the lat­ter went through.
  3. VENEZUELA’S ECONOMIC DIFFICULTIES ARE NOT ABOUT LOW OIL PRICES BUT ABOUT GOVERNMENT INEPTNESS. In fact, there are three caus­es of the eco­nom­ic cri­sis and they all have approx­i­mate­ly the same weight: low oil prices, the eco­nom­ic war (with Julio Borges’s pub­lic cam­paign against multi­na­tion­al invest­ments in Venezuela, the exis­tence of an eco­nom­ic war is clear­er to see than in the past), and erro­neous gov­ern­ment poli­cies. With regard to the lat­ter (and here I prob­a­bly diverge some­what from Mark Weis­brot), I believe that deci­sions on eco­nom­ic poli­cies were nec­es­sary and urgent, but that there were no easy and obvi­ous choic­es and any one that was made would have come with a price, both polit­i­cal­ly and economically.
  4. GOVERNMENT INTRANSIGENCE IS DUE TO THE FACT THAT THE CHAVISTA LEADERS DON’T WANT TO LOSE THEIR PRIVILEGES. This state­ment is mis­lead­ing, even while there is undoubt­ed­ly an ele­ment of truth in it. But the state­ment assumes that Chav­ista lead­ers are all cyn­ics and with­out any sense of ide­al­ism. Where is the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence to sup­port this claim?
  5. ATTORNEY GENERAL LUISA ORTEGA DIAZ REPRESENTS A NEUTRAL POSITION WHICH THE MADURO GOVERNMENT IS UNWILLING TO TOLERATE. In fact, regard­less of her motives, she has assumed an explic­it­ly pro-oppo­si­tion posi­tion. In such a crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in which the oppo­si­tion open­ly pro­pos­es anar­chy as a means to unseat Maduro, it makes sense that the Chav­is­tas are attempt­ing to remove her from office.

In short, I believe in the con­clu­sive need to sup­port the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment in spite of the numer­ous crit­i­cisms that I have (some more pro­found than oth­ers). With that, I am not argu­ing for non-dis­cus­sion of the errors. Every­thing to the con­trary, the Venezue­lan expe­ri­ence needs to be ana­lyzed from a crit­i­cal per­spec­tive, espe­cial­ly because of the plau­si­bil­i­ty of the crit­i­cisms for­mu­lat­ed by crit­i­cal pro­gres­sives and the thorni­ness of many of the issues that have been raised. But there is a long tra­di­tion of purism on the left that runs counter to the posi­tion of “crit­i­cal sup­port” that I advocate.

First pub­lished by teleSUR Eng­lish, adapt­ed and expand­ed for Venezuelanalysis.

This work is licensed under a Attri­bu­tion Non-com­mer­cial No Deriv­a­tives Cre­ative Com­mons license

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