For Venezuela, the worst-case scenario of a US military intervention remains a potent threat. A long-time advisor to Hugo Chavez offers his thoughts on the country’s crisis.
By Temir Porras & Jared Abott – Jacobin
Given how polarized both the mainstream and left media have become with respect to Venezuelan politics, it is virtually impossible for international observers to access fair but critical assessments of Venezuela from the Left. Temir Porras has been a Chavista militant from the beginning of Hugo Chávez’s presidency in 1999 and served in a variety of important roles both in Chávez’s government, and then briefly in the government of Nicolás Maduro. Most notably, from 2004 onward he served stints as chief of staff and deputy to several foreign ministers, including Nicolás Maduro between 2007 and Maduro’s election as president in 2013. Starting in late 2013 he served briefly as the head of FONDEN and BANDES, Venezuela’s national development fund and development bank, respectively.
Porras is a long-time Chavista insider with extensive experience at the highest levels of Venezuela’s Bolivarian government, but also a constructive critic of the Maduro government’s recent economic and political strategies. This situates him ideally to provide readers with a nuanced, panoramic assessment of both the roots of Venezuela’s current economic and political crises, as well as a framework for thinking aboutfeasible, progressive resolutions to these crises.
JA- Let’s start with Venezuela’s economic issues. Venezuela is currently experiencing a major economic crisis: sustained hyperinflation, consecutive years of serious economic contraction, major shortages of basic goods and services. What is less settled, especially within the Left, are the causes of the crisis. Critics of the government offer a range of factors: short-sighted macroeconomic policies, irrational monetary policy, government corruption, insufficient investment in the Venezuelan oil industry. On the other hand, among government supporters the most oft-cited causes of the crisis are the guerra económica (economic war) being waged against Venezuela by the US (especially by cutting off Venezuelan access to US credit), as well as massive black-market speculators in basic goods. How do you assess the relative merits of these divergent accounts of the economic crisis in Venezuela?
TP- Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that, in general, in Latin America today, Venezuela is used by those who claim that any alternative school of thought that doesn’t comply with neoliberal dictates and doesn’t follow the traditional recipes of the free market economic story must fail. Of course we need to be careful when making historical comparisons like this, but the situation is a bit like after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism in Europe, when there was a massive push coming from neoliberal thinkers and organizations to make a point of using the example of a failure as absolute proof that anything coming from the Left is destined to fail.
In the case of Venezuela, there is a kind of Venezuela-bashing industry. Much of this comes from people who were critics of Chavismo from the very beginning, particularly what I call the “sociological” anti-Chavistas (or traditional elite), who have opposed Chavismo by not always very lawful or democratic means. They claim that what we’re seeing today in Venezuela was written already in 1999 [at the beginning of Chávez’s government], and that’s the reason why they criticized Chavismo in the first place. This is a way of rewriting history.
On the other hand, yes of course, there are internal explanations of the current crisis. You can list them; none of them is the single, essential reason but they all play a partial role. I would say one is that, in Venezuela in particular — but this applies to most of the progressive/leftist governments that arose in Latin America during the early and mid-2000s — Chavismo found a way to mobilize the national wealth of the country, primarily derived from the oil industry, and became, among other things, a redistributive project. In that sense it had a revolutionary dimension because never before in such a massive way had any Venezuelan government decided to utilize the redistributive approach as a tool for tackling not only Venezuela’s problems such as inequality, lack of access to education and health, etc., but also as a way to boost consumption and create an internal market that resulted in dynamic economic growth.
The problem is that though these redistributive efforts had a far-reaching impact, which we can see in rapid improvements in social indicators during Chávez’s government, the Venezuelan left and the Latin American left in general never came up with an economic strategy. How do developing nations that are in what some call the “middle-income trap” address the challenge of development, of increasing the material base that enables social progress? And how do developing economies that try to organize a domestically oriented development process deal with the pressures of globalization, that is, the fact that world finance is globalized and that countries like Venezuela require access to international capital, etc.?
All those questions were not really addressed under Chávez, mainly because Venezuela’s economic situation in the early 2000s and up until recently was favorable. Most Latin American countries relied on the commodities super-cycle to sustain growth during this period and were able to access enough capital to sustain their expansive social strategies. Most of these countries, and clearly in the case of Venezuela, didn’t really need to answer those difficult questions because the favorable economic situation gave them considerable autonomy to pursue ambitious social spending programs. Once this situation changed [with the decline of global commodity prices in 2014], of course, Chavismo was not prepared to address this negative economic environment.
And of course, even if it’s sensationalized in the international press, the Venezuelan government also suffers from a lack of transparency, from corruption, and there is a general problem of mismanagement, lack of technical skills, and of qualified people in the right places. There is a belief [among Venezuelan government officials] that personal trust and political closeness are more important than technical competence. That is a common feature in many Latin American countries. Latin American states were ill-equipped to play this prominent role that the Left assigned them in the national development process.
Further, just because left-wing coalitions and leaders achieved political power through elections in the 2000s (something very new in Latin America at the time), that doesn’t mean, for instance in the case of Chavismo — despite claims to be inspired by socialist ideals and claims to have put into motion a process that would lead to a socialist society — that Venezuela today is a socialist society at all. As anybody who knows Latin America knows, these are societies where you have large economic sectors that can be characterized as precapitalist, where you have a very savage form of capitalism in which the forces of money are very strong, and the rights of the people to defend themselves against the forces of the market are weak. The development of regulated societies with strong enough institutions to enforce the rights of the people, the integrity of the civil service, etc. is far from perfect. So even if you have powerful forces at the top, and sometimes at the bottom, that doesn’t mean that day to day the society works in an ideal manner. It’s a very painful and difficult process.
Finally, it is also important to consider that even if Maduro’s government cites the economic war and the forces of the national and international bourgeoisie as the main factors causing the economic crisis in Venezuela, in my opinion that is a bit of an exaggeration, given all the factors I described before. That doesn’t mean there is no active negative influence that is being exercised by these groups. It’s true. But this is nothing new to Maduro’s government.
The national bourgeoisie has done very little historically in Venezuela to contribute to the national project. What is often described as a business community is only a private sector that, differently from the more advanced economies of the North, does not function on the risk-reward basis of risking capital and expecting a return. In the case of Venezuela these are private groups that organize themselves with allies in the state in order to capture oil rents as efficiently as possible. There are various mechanisms through which national and international bourgeoisies can preserve their interests against progressive attempts at reform, but this is a permanent feature that is not unique to the present government. Chávez had to deal with it in the past and was able to deliver successes nonetheless. So, explaining the current crisis primarily by reference to the existence of an international conspiracy is a very partial and unsatisfactory explanation.
JA- It sounds like you see fundamental structural limitations impeding the capacity of leftist governments to implement more radical economic agendas in Latin America, most importantly state capacity. But it seems that there are more or less two broad economic paths a government in Venezuela’s situation today could take to resolve its economic crisis, bracketing the extremely thorny political issues that make the implementation of these paths more complicated. One comes from the far left, which would argue that the Venezuelan government hasn’t gone far enough in nationalizing key industries, in creating worker/community-owned and run enterprises, in creating a genuinely self-sufficient socialist economy in Venezuela.
Then on the other side there are economic pragmatists who would argue that the only way out of this would be some kind of very difficult adjustment program to stabilize the Venezuelan economy, which would probably include measures that would be catastrophic for ordinary Venezuelans, along the lines of traditional neoliberal adjustment programs. What do you see as the best-case scenario for moving Venezuela in a more positive direction economically?
TP- You spoke about the possibility of an adjustment. One of the curious characteristics of Venezuela today is that this adjustment has already happened. Even though the government has not implemented a traditional neoliberal adjustment program, its lack of strategy to address the current crisis has let a chaotic adjustment happen by itself. What else can it be than adjustment when the minimum monthly wage fell from 300 dollars in 2014 to 1 dollar a few months ago? So, the situation in Venezuela must be analyzed bearing that in mind. There has been an adjustment, and that’s the reason you’re seeing massive negative consequences with respect to migration, lack of public services, etc.
It isn’t a result of a conscious, rational program by the government, the government hasn’t decided to stop funding this or that, but the lack of strategy to address the crisis has left the country in a situation of chaotic or anarchic adjustment. The economy has “self-regulated,” if you will, so I don’t think that there is a need for further adjustment, at least not in the neoliberal way, because people have suffered enough.
But on the other hand, I wouldn’t advocate for a more radical approach either. Advocates of this approach suggest that it could be successful but for the will of the government to implement it. I think this is a simplistic understanding of Venezuela’s political and economic realities. What is needed to get out of the crisis, at least in the short-term, is to tackle one main problem. Today Venezuela is a country that relies essentially on one industry: oil. If you don’t have a functioning oil industry in Venezuela it is impossible to overcome the current economic crisis. That’s putting aside the question of who owns and controls the oil industry, of course. The problem today is that the oil industry is producing half of what it produced only four or five years ago. Even at that point the Venezuelan government hadn’t figured out how to meet the continually rising demands of Venezuelan society, and it was caught between the need diversify its economy and the need to produce more oil to fund consumption. This takes us back to the unresolved problem of the Left’s inability to offer a sustainable alternative economic model that we talked about earlier.
Today, by contrast, the main issue is simply to turn the oil industry around and make it produce again. One of the problems of doing this is that an oil industry like Venezuela’s, which is gigantic compared to the size of the economy, is a very international industry. I would be willing to entertain the idea of an alternative for Venezuela that doesn’t depend so much on international stakeholders, but the problem is that most of Venezuelan production is destined for export. So, the industry is closely linked to the international economy. Additionally, it is an industry that requires a high level of investment. One of the problems today is that Venezuela doesn’t have the capital needed for these investments.
So at least in the short term, trying to navigate between the two poles you described (pragmatic vs radical), Venezuela requires a solution more in the middle, because the oil industry cannot recover without access to capital. And this implies international stakeholders, multilateral institutions, etc., and this is a huge problem. To the extent that Venezuela can remain at a distance from traditional sources of capital that the IMF provides, that would be ideal [given accompanying loan-conditionalities], but for that to happen it has to convince countries like China and capital markets (organized mainly in the US and UK) to invest. These are challenges that require any administration in Venezuela to have very clear strategic objectives, and in the short term this must be gaining access to capital, which, in turn, suggests the need to reach some kind of negotiated settlement or compromise with international stakeholders. I regret it, but I don’t see how Venezuela can self-engineer itself out of the current crisis, at least from the economic point of view.
Nature of the Crisis
JA- The economic crisis in Venezuela has been accompanied by a deep political crisis, with dueling national legislatures both claiming legitimacy, reports of increasing concentration of high-level decision-making around President Maduro’s inner circle, allegations of fraud in the 2018 presidential elections, which have weakened President Maduro’s international legitimacy, and a growing sense of desperation among many Venezuelans. How would you characterize the nature of the current political crisis, and what do you see as its principal causes?
TP- What I would say is that one of Chávez’s main successes was his capacity to manage often contradictory forces within his movement to produce positive results. One example is Chávez’s mobilization of a revolutionary rhetoric, saying we will transform Venezuelan society and build socialism, while at the same time most of the gains were achieved occurred not through a revolutionary state but rather through a more or less traditional liberal democracy.
Venezuela had a functioning constitution that guaranteed the rights and mechanisms that any true liberal democracy provides, there was political pluralism, there was freedom of speech, and all the guarantees were there to allow different groups to compete in the public arena. No theoretical solution to that contradiction — namely, of saying on the one hand that we’re making a revolution, and on the other hand we’re respecting the rule of law of any normally functioning liberal democracy — was ever developed. Rather, the practical answer to it was that Chávez managed to establish political hegemony, and this allowed Chavismo to retain power in the competitive system we had from 1999 to 2015. Preserving that political equilibrium, and trying to build consensus where possible, was also a way of giving the country the political stability required to allow any sort of development strategy to be implemented.
The problem today is that the basis of that fragile consensus built by Chávez is broken. The reality is that, absent any sort of compromise, at least on the institutional functioning of the country, you can’t implement any successful economic strategy because, as you mentioned, if you don’t have one legislative power that is recognized as such by everybody you start having problems like the ones we have today: problems that affect the legality of the budget, the legality of contracts, etc. How do you implement an oil strategy while your counterparts in the rest of the world don’t have assurances that the steps the government is taking to organize its own industry will be legal?
The problem today is that people are focused only on the very short term. The opposition believes that the government is extremely weak, and that the moment has come for it to collapse and the opposition to take over. Meanwhile, the Maduro government is being attacked on all sides by the so-called international community and has been slapped with devastating sanctions, which have put it in a very defensive position. Everyone is focused on the very short term. But the reality is that none of the actions being taken to retain power in the short term will be enough to stabilize our country and guarantee a more normal functioning of the country going forward.
That is why, sometimes against my own natural reflexes, I say that no matter how wrong our political adversaries are, there is a political necessity in the country to find some way to negotiate in order to guarantee political coexistence. That’s why I’m a believer — even though I am perfectly aware of how far the sides are from each other — in the idea that there is no way out of this situation without a political deal that requires a great deal of maturity from the different political actors, and that allows at least for the institutions of 1999 to function again. Even if it looks extremely unlikely right now, this is the way the country functioned just a few years ago. I don’t have a road map to get there but I’m convinced there has to be an internal national political negotiation.
JA- I want to focus a bit on Chavismo itself, and the Venezuelan left. From the outside, there is a strong tendency to oversimplify what is in fact a very wide spectrum of political perspectives within Chavismo. Could you give us a broad strokes overview of the main tendencies within the movement right now, and in particular focus on the place of the Left within Chavismo.
TP- Well the first thing that must be said is that Chavismo is not “the Left.” Chavismo has at least two components, as Chávez himself described it. First, the Bolivarian Revolution rested on a civil-military alliance, so Chavismo is a very peculiar movement because it has a massive civilian component, but it also has a very deeply rooted military component. Progressives all around the world tend to have a problem with that.
My response is that Chavismo presented itself as a national liberation movement, in a way, and national liberation movements have a patriotic component that requires the nation to preserve its sovereignty. Chavismo was not only a socially progressive political movement but also a national liberation movement that enabled a new government to fully exercise sovereignty over its territory, and for that purpose the question of the military was essential. This explains why not everyone relevant in Chavismo has a leftist background. Chávez himself was a very peculiar kind of military man, because the civilian Chávez influenced the military Chávez a lot more than the other way around. By becoming the political leader of the Venezuelan military, he managed to channel the energy of the military in favor of a progressive government.
The problem is that when Chávez disappeared, this leadership disappeared, and the capacity to orient the military disappeared. And yet the military remains. This is one of the reasons why you see very contradictory trends within Chavismo. When Chávez emerged as a political phenomenon in the mid-1990s, his movement quickly absorbed most of Venezuela’s revolutionary left. Chavismo is deeply linked to the revolutionary left in that sense. It also absorbed most of the electoral base of Venezuelan social democracy, though most of the leadership of Venezuelan social democracy remained outside of the movement. In other words, Chavismo managed to develop a revolutionary cadre who could exercise leadership roles in the movement, while also building a mass base of support among voters who formerly supported the social-democratic party (Acción Democrática).
So you had that component of the revolutionary left, you had the electoral constituency of the social-democratic movement, and finally you had a military component, which, unless you allow for a few important exceptions, doesn’t really have a historic connection with the Left. It’s more connected with Venezuelan national history, particularly Bolívar and Venezuela’s national independence movement. That tradition was also significant in the Venezuelan left, but really the connection between the Left and the military was sustained by the personality of Chávez.
Today you still have those same components, but they are much more fragmented than they were before. Chávez managed to do some kind of alchemy that took advantage of each of those elements and made them work together. He somehow managed to bring out the best in the different components of Chavismo. The problem with the lack of leadership after Chávez’s passing is that most of those groups now operate in a fragmented way, claiming fractions of power and behaving in a more traditional manner based on the preservation of their own narrow interests. A great example is the revolutionary left. During Chávez’s presidency it largely put aside what I believe is the traditional mode of politics of the revolutionary left, that is, very divisive, sectarian, not thinking about the big picture or coming up with feasible political strategies. Today, however, all those natural reflexes of the revolutionary left that were more or less dormant under Chávez are now reemerging.
You see the same thing with the military. You start seeing different segments of the military trying to seize control over various industries or sectors of society, and you see rogue individuals who organize themselves like mafias. The actions of some sectors of the military get out of control, and civil institutions don’t really have the power to reign them in. All of Venezuelan society, all of Chavismo today is suffering from this problem of fragmentation. And at the end of the day this produces a general lack of coherence in government action. You can have Maduro at the center of those different factions, but that doesn’t mean he can orient the actions of Chavismo as a whole. He’s more of a caretaker who distributes power in order to preserve his own. But at the same time, he’s losing all sorts of strategic capacities, and losing a great deal of political and economic coherence.
As you can see, in 2018 the Venezuelan government switched from an extremely heterodox economic approach to claiming a policy of zero fiscal deficits. It has adopted this much more orthodox economic approach, at least in its rhetoric, without any kind of broad discussion of economic policy within the party (PSUV), without any of the processes you would imagine being involved in decision-making with a more coherent movement. So today, unfortunately, Chavismo is very much fragmented and lacking the balance and stability that Chávez managed to secure during his presidency.
JA- here’s a lot of talk within the Left of Chavismo, and within the international left, about the possibilities of building the Estado Comunal, or Communal State. Right before he died in 2013, President Chávez lamented the failure of the Bolivarian process to advance toward the Estado Comunal, which would consist of a total reconfiguration of political power in Venezuela away from the traditional representative system based on municipalities and states and toward a radical participatory-democratic socialist system consisting of local-level citizens’ councils (consejos comunales) which would be aggregated into larger Communes (comunas), and so forth up to the national level. Since 2012 thousands of Communes have been formed around the country, but the extent to which the system is progressing toward an eventual replacement of the current Venezuelan political system is a matter of debate. What do you see as the current state of the Estado Comunal and what role do you see it playing in the future of Venezuelan socialism?
TP- In the case of communal organizations, I don’t see it as a matter of being more or less radical, I see it as a matter of building true democracy. In that sense I, like most Chavistas and Chávez himself, favor the idea of self-management and self-organization. One of the reasons why Venezuelan society has been undemocratic in the past is because of the lack of access to basic rights for the poor. Even from the perspective of more traditional liberal politics, of people who would be in favor of more market solutions for Venezuela, the organization of people for productive purposes and organizing to make people self-sustainable economically is something that is needed in Venezuela.
So I think that the organization of the Communes, which has been demonized by the right wing, is basically just allowing for the people to organize collectively and giving them resources to engage in their own economic projects. The aim of building the communal structure was essentially to create a legal framework that would make it legal for the central state to transfer resources to those very small economic structures. In my opinion it’s something that is perfectly consistent with the Constitution of 1999, and perfectly consistent with the existence of a strong liberal democracy. It is just a tool to allow economic initiatives coming from the bottom of society to have access to the funding, training, technical assistance, needed to succeed.
But the system has confronted a lack of capacity. If I had to explain why I thought the Bolivarian Revolution hasn’t achieved more in the building of a Communal State, or at least promoting communal organization from the bottom, I would say that Chávez and Chavismo in general tended to have great ideas and great initiatives, the problem was the organization and execution. Probably the modes of organization weren’t the most efficient ones possible. But it is definitely a pending matter and I can only advocate for further development.
JA- We’ve talked a lot about some of the potential roadblocks to moving forward, and you’ve gestured toward what a resolution to the political crisis might look like. But could you elaborate a bit by explaining what you see as the worst, the most likely, and the best-case scenarios for political resolution over the next few years?
TP- I think Venezuela is in a very dangerous situation, for reasons we have described, and the situation is only worsening. There is also the international situation, with Latin America moving to the right and many Latin American governments now in the hands of conservatives. These governments are thinking about how to end what they see as a critical problem in Latin America, namely Chavismo in Venezuela. Legitimacy problems faced by the Maduro government have probably made that path easier. And of course, you also have the US administration that has escalated the situation in Venezuela, and even if Trump’s mentioning of US intervention in Venezuela only happened once and was an off-hand remark, it is extremely serious.
The only antidote to further international escalation — which can only lead to additional sanctions that create more stress for Venezuelan society or to the absolutely catastrophic alternative of US military intervention — is an internal solution. All parties involved need to realize that the only solution is offering an internal resolution, of showing the world that Venezuelans can solve their own problems.
The problem is that the international community has sanctioned both the Venezuelan oil sector as well as individuals within the government. To achieve a political resolution, however, the political actors involved need to have an alternative. If the only possibility for a Chavista in government today is to remain in power or be taken before the International Criminal Court, as some Latin American governments (with the support of the US government) have suggested, there’s no incentive for anyone to find common ground or to reach an internal resolution to the conflict. There needs to be a change in attitudes in the international community. And given that this isn’t going to come from the current US administration, some other governments, perhaps in Europe, need to be aware that it is irresponsible to take a posture against Venezuela just because this is in line with public opinion in their own countries. Because the risk is that escalation could lead to a catastrophic outcome.
There are several different potential outcomes of the current crisis. One, which is probably the most positive one, is that some people in the Venezuelan government take the extremely brave and forward-looking step of generating an internal process of dialogue. That is, finding counterparts in the opposition and trying to reach a deal that at least brings a resolution to the duality of the legislative powers, and then starts working on other problems. This is something that can be achieved, but again, it requires a great deal of courage and putting aside the tensions that day-to-day politics create.
Another, less positive scenario would be that domestic pressures on the Maduro government generated from the perception that it is incapable of offering solutions to the crisis could generate increased tensions and weaken Maduro’s leadership within Chavismo. That would generate a situation of political instability, the outcome of which would be very difficult to predict. And, of course, the worst-case scenario would be, absent any sort of negotiation or internal crisis, that someday the US administration might decide, for whatever reason, to initiate a catastrophic military intervention in Venezuela, that, as we have seen in many other contexts, one knows when it starts but never knows how or when it will end.
I have the feeling that the current situation is so bad, that the following months will be so tense, that one of these scenarios has to unfold. I get the sense that it’s a matter of months. But at the same time, one must take into account Maduro’s resilience and the resilience of Chavismo in general. Many times, observers have foreseen a rapid devolution of the government within months, and yet the government has managed to maintain the status quo, taking political initiatives that have preserved its power.
I get the sense that now we’re in different situation, since Maduro committed to his base that his recent reelection [in May 2018] would serve as a reset or restarting point, and that with this renewed political legitimacy he and his team would be able to address the problems of the general population. This hasn’t happened, at least not so far, so I think that we have to watch closely over the following months.