The US left’s failure to build solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution has opened the way for right-wing efforts to delegitimize Maduro and justify US intervention.
By Steve Striffler
In the late 1990s and early 2000s popular forces in Latin America ushered in what came to be known as the pink tide, a hemispheric backlash against neoliberalism. Latin Americans succeeded in electing a diverse group of left-of-center leaders who advocated anti-neoliberal policies that ranged from limited income redistribution to more ambitious nationalization schemes. By the mid-2000s, with the Latin American right in seeming disarray, many observers located the region’s dynamism within the struggle between “two lefts”—a “good” left, personified by Lula of Brazil, and a “bad” left, represented most prominently by Chávez in Venezuela. Whereas Lula and the moderate left played by market rules, worked with opponents, and respected political systems, the more radical-populist left of Chávez openly mocked and challenged existing institutions, opponents, and property.
What is striking, given all that was made of the differences between the paths and policies of the two lefts, is not only how remarkably similar the current violence, subversion of democracy, and devastating poverty are in both Brazil and Venezuela. It is how the two countries got from there to here, from relatively stable left-leaning governments that were able to reproduce themselves over time to a coup-like collapse orchestrated by a radical right that views even moderate reformers as enemies to be exterminated.
A lot of forces have driven this reversal, but part of the struggle has been an ideological one over how to understand socialism and left leaning rule. Over time, and often in direct contradiction to on-the-ground reality (aka the truth), the Venezuelan right—with considerable “solidarity” from US conservatives—has been (sufficiently) successful in framing Chavez and Maduro as authoritarian dictators who violate human rights, undermine capitalist freedom, and enact irresponsible economic policy.
The US left, by contrast, was never able to frame Chavismo in more positive terms in the United States, even during the 2000s when there was a lot to crow about in Venezuela. This failure, in turn, made it that much easier to subsequently label Maduro as an authoritarian dictator while providing cover for the Venezuelan right to ascend and (quite literally) get away with murder. Put another way, the inability of the US left to frame how Venezuela was understood during the high point of Chavismo has left us largely helpless now, a failure of solidarity that has had ongoing consequences for Venezuela. More than this, it has implications for the future of progressive change in the United States because stoking fears about “another Venezuela” has become a go-to trope in the right’s toolkit for opposing even modest changes to state initiatives around healthcare or decent wages in the US.
It is worth emphasizing at the outset that the primary forces behind recent events in both Brazil and Venezuela should not be located in the laundry list of criticisms that US observers across the political spectrum have thrown at leftish governments in Latin America, namely corruption, repression, the erosion of democratic norms, and reckless economic policies. To be sure, there have been elements of each in Brazil and Venezuela over the past two decades (as there are in all governments), but these are symptoms of class war more than causes of the current disaster.
The irony of Chávez, as Greg Grandin has pointed out, was not that he was too authoritarian, but that he was not authoritarian enough. On the one hand, this is what made Chavismo so inspiring. Unlike “left-authoritarians” of Latin America’s past, some of whom quickly and violently turned on the masses, Chávez cultivated and mobilized “the people” throughout his decade-plus in office. He knew how central the popular classes were to both his continued rule and a better Venezuela. They were rarely, if ever, the target of authoritarian tendencies, and in fact became central protagonists in the country’s political life for (in many cases) the first time in Venezuelan history.
On the other hand, although Chávez was quite good at mocking and challenging the opposition, in retrospect it seems clear that he may have squandered what brief opportunity there was to thoroughly neuter the dominant class and its political arm. This speaks to the difficulty of implementing socialism within the contradictory confines of representative democracy, constitutions, and property regimes that are set up to support capitalism. It requires constantly winning and moving the public debate, persuading, organizing, and mobilizing popular sectors to not only forge viable coalitions to win elections, but to occupy and transform the state while both confronting capitalism directly and creating new sources of political and economic power. This is a difficult and dangerous balancing act, and one that even Chavismo could not finesse indefinitely. It is virtually impossible to sustain popular movements for long periods, especially radical ones that seek to fundamentally challenge political and economic power. The moment for dismantling the dominant class will always be ephemeral.
Whether or not there was ever such a moment in Venezuela is debatable, but Chávez certainly never seized it during the height of his power – when a more “authoritarian” approach to private property and the Venezuelan elite might have been possible and game-changing. High oil prices and an ultimately disastrous currency-exchange rate allowed Chávez to provide the poor with services and reduce inequality without fully confronting the dominant class or existing problems within the civilian or military bureaucracies. What this meant was that when oil prices eventually declined, and popular support became less robust, the right—which never lost the core of its economic power—was able to reestablish itself politically. The resurgence of the right, and along with it a greatly intensified and chaos-inducing class war, spelled doom for socialism in Venezuela, and also amplified the context in which corruption, violence, and poverty blossomed. A different, but somewhat parallel, process played out in Brazil.
The ideological part of this battle was one that Chávez relished and waged with considerable skill both within and beyond Venezuela. What has always been a bit surprising, however, especially given the recent outpouring of commentary in relation to Trump and US involvement in the Guaidó coup attempt, is how little help Chavismo received from the US left during the height of Venezuelan revolutionary activity in the 2000s – during a moment when there was a lot more in Venezuela for the US left to get behind than simply advocating for abstract notions of sovereignty and non-intervention. At the time, in part because Chávez had such a bold presence on the world stage, and in part because he cultivated so many allies in Latin America and elsewhere, the relative absence of US-based solidarity hardly seemed noteworthy. Nor was it entirely surprising given that the left in the United States barely existed and had never been able to coalesce around anti-neoliberalism in the way that Latin Americans had done.
Yet, even after the recession of 2008 produced a deeper discussion about material inequality in the United States, the US left was still not drawn to Venezuela in large numbers – despite the fact that Chavismo provided ample “teaching moments” about political mobilization and the potential of state power to redistribute wealth, combat poverty, broaden educational opportunities, etc. More importantly, the US left was never able to reshape (or really even contest) the mainstream framing of Venezuela – which quickly cohered around “Venezuela” as an undemocratic country run by an unhinged authoritarian who threatened capitalist freedom and was thus morally subject to a human rights intervention by the United States. This failure of solidarity and the inability to reframe Venezuela was remarkable given how far the mainstream myth was from on-the-ground reality; even with the truth on our side, attempts by the left to correct the record were muted and never really penetrated the political establishment (which speaks to the overall weakness of the left, particularly with respect to the major foreign policy issues of our time). The consequences of this were unclear through the first decade and a half of the new century. Who cared how “off” the US public, media, and political establishment were about Venezuela as long as Chavismo hummed along and retained considerable support in Latin America and elsewhere?
When the situation started to really head south in Venezuela, however, and the right regrouped and waged a venomous form of class warfare, the demonization of Chavismo made it all the more easy to define Maduro as illegitimate. This not only allowed some within the US political establishment to attach a higher moral purpose to proposed US interventions that should have otherwise been quickly opposed as imperialist aggression. This framing of Maduro as an illegitimate dictator also created considerable space and freedom of movement for a Venezuelan right that was committing atrocities and acts of treason that would have landed them in jail in any other country. With Maduro uncritically defined as illegitimate, right-wing thugs with little political base beyond the oligarchy were given considerable cover for all sorts of horrific behavior. This occurred partly through a sort of right-wing international solidarity coming most recently from the likes of Marco Rubio, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, Elliot Abrams, etc. In all too many circles, they became popular freedom fighters.
In this respect, what has been astounding about all of Trump’s saber rattling around Venezuela is the inability of the social democratic wing of the Democratic Party to respond in a meaningful or even vaguely satisfying way. Some might say this is par for the course from a party that has disappointment written into its DNA. Think for a minute, however, about how the progressive wing of the Democratic Party tore into Nixon-Kissinger over human rights violations in Chile, or how it responded to the Reagan administration’s aggressions in Central America. These were, of course, quite different moments and cases, and the depth and coherence of the Democratic response can easily be overstated. But aside from any moral motivations for opposing US foreign policy in the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats rightly saw Chile and Central America as political opportunities to go on the offensive against both a vulnerable president in Nixon and a highly popular one in Reagan.
By contrast, with Trump, an immensely unpopular president, Democrats have never found their footing with respect to Venezuela or foreign policy more generally. While the liberal establishment defined by Pelosi and her ilk quickly lined up behind Trump’s Venezuela policy, the social democratic wing stumbled, and often accepted—with little critical reflection—Trump’s claim that Maduro was illegitimate. Bernie blew it. Ocasio-Cortez awkwardly oscillated between silence and an overly simplistic version of the authoritarian, anti-democratic, line. Others, such as Ilhan Omar, were noticeably better, but there has been nothing resembling a critical, coherent, pushback (fortunately, Maduro is holding onto the Venezuelan military).
There are, of course, reasons for this. There isn’t much left to hold onto in Venezuela, which leaves calls to respect the country’s sovereignty and appeals for non-intervention appear as sufficient expressions of solidarity. Likewise, Democrats may not want to divert attention away from their domestic attack on Trump (though it is hard to go after his foreign policy when they largely lack an alternative/progressive vision of their own).
But the broader point is that the narrowness of the debate and lack of current options is due partly to the fact that the ideological framing with respect to Venezuela was set during the Chávez years – whereby Venezuela was ideologically defined as a country run by an authoritarian dictator in need of human rights intervention. The failure to effectively challenge this framing, and therefore lay the groundwork for entirely different kinds of debates and conversations, is attributable to numerous factors, but is at least partially due to the inability of the US left to shape the debate in any meaningful way, or at least to the point where a progressive framing permeated the social democratic wing of the Democratic Party.
Here again, Chile and Central America are useful examples, if only in the sense that there had been a small, but visible, US left working in solidarity with Chileans and Central Americans before the respective situations deteriorated enough to place those countries on the US public’s radar. It was this left that progressives within the Democratic Party turned to as they sought to understand events and challenge the Nixon and Reagan administrations. In fact, it is hard to imagine how they would have understood these conflicts in the absence of a left working with Chilean and Central American allies both in Latin America and in exile in the United States (on this, the large and loud presence of anti-Chavista Venezuelans in the United States has been an important difference that has been key in shaping public opinion).
Despite committed work by relatively isolated intellectuals and activists, there was/is no similar US left with respect to Venezuela, which helps explain why social democrats, who are willing to attack Trump on almost anything, have either remained relatively quiet or (worse) largely accepted the premises of his imperialist foreign policy. Without a left, they are rudderless, clueless, or simply complicit with Trump’s foreign policy agenda.
The inability to reframe how the US understands Venezuela—to at least minimally see it through a more sophisticated lens that understands the right wing for what it is—is important for the future of Venezuela, but also for the future of socialism in the United States. At a moment when growing concern about inequality has led to a broader rethinking of the role of government in the United States, Venezuela remains a popular refrain among Republicans who sound hysterical alarms about “becoming another Venezuela” every time a Democrat mentions something about decent healthcare or increasing the minimum wage. The continued importance of other countries for understanding how the US sees itself remains an important reason why we must rebuild the US left, including its internationalist expressions.