Edgardo Lander questions the Latin American Left’s “unconditional solidarity” with Chavism.
By Natalia Uval |La Daria/aporrea.org*
HAVANA TIMES — Edgardo Lander is not only an academic, full-time professor at the Central University of Venezuela and research associate of the Transnational Institute. He is also a person who has been linked to social and leftist movements in his country for years. From that standpoint, he claims that the regional Left’s unconditional support for Chavism reinforced negative trends in the movement. He maintains that the international Left hasn’t had the “ability to learn”, which end up backing a “mafia government” like that in Nicaragua, and that when “the Venezuelan model collapses” it’s likely that they will just “turn a blind eye”.
Three years ago, you described the situation in Venezuela as the “implosion of the rentier oil state model”. Is this description still valid?
Unfortunately, problems which can be described as linked to the exhaustion of the rentier oil state model, have become much worse. The fact that Venezuela has had 100 years of oil industry and state-centrism which revolves around how assets are handed out has formed not only a State and party system, but also a political culture and collective perception of Venezuela as a rich, abundant country, and the notion that politics consists of the country organizing itself to ask the State. This is the enduring logic.
In the “Bolivarian” process began by Hugo Chavez, in spite of many speeches which seem to have headed in the opposite direction, all it did was emphasize this further. From an economic point of view, the colonial type of insertion in the international organization of work. The collapse in oil prices simply laid something which was very obvious bare, when a country depends on a single commodity whose prices fluctuate.
Criticism of the state of democracy in Venezuela has increased after Nicolas Maduro came into power. Why is that? How do you compare this to the situation under Hugo Chavez’s government?
First, you have to take into account what exactly happened in the handing over of power from Chavez to Maduro. I personally believe that the majority of the problems we find ourselves facing today are problems which were building up under Chavez’s government. The analysis of part of the Venezuelan Left which defended the Chavez era as the glory years, where everything worked properly and then suddenly Maduro came onto the scene as an incompetent leader or traitor, are over simplified reasons and don’t allow us to find out what the most structural logic is which led to the current crisis.
The Venezuelan process, to put it into very schematic terms, has always rested on two fundamental pillars. On the one hand, there was Chavez’s extraordinary ability to communicate and lead the nation, which created a social movement. On the other hand, oil prices which reached over 100 USD per barrel during some years. Almost at the same time, in 2013, these two pillars collapsed: Chavez died and oil prices came crashing down. And the Emperor was laid bare.
It became clear that this system was extremely fragile because it depended on things which it could no longer continue to depend on. Plus, there are very significant differences between Chavez’s leadership and Maduro’s leadership. Chavez was a leader with the ability to steer the nation and make sense of things, but he also had an extraordinary leadership within the Bolivarian government as such, that when he made his decision about something, that was what would be done. This creates a lack of debate and many mistakes, but it also creates a united, focused front. Maduro does not have this skill, he never has, and now everybody in the government is pulling their way.
On the other hand, during Maduro’s government, there has been an increase in militarization, maybe because Maduro doesn’t come from the military world so, in order to ensure the Armed Forces support him and remain loyal, he has incorporated more of these military men into government and given them more privileges. Military companies have been created, military men make up a third of all ministers and half of the government, and they hold key roles in public administration, where there have been greater levels of corruption: in assigning access to USD, port administration and food distribution. The fact that these are now in military hands makes accountability in these activities even more difficult, with less public information.
What happened to the social participation programs that the Chavez government once encouraged?
Today in Venezuela, there is a tear in the fabric of society. After an extraordinarily rich experience of social organization, of grassroots movements, of movements relating to health, telecommunications, of owning urban land and literacy teaching, which involved millions of people and created a culture of trust, solidarity, of being able to influence their own futures, one would guess that in times of crisis, we would be able to come together to find a solution, and it turns out that we can’t.
Of course, I am talking in very general terms; there are places with greater autonomy and self-government. However, in general terms, we can say that the response that we experience today is more competitive, individualist. In any case, I believe that there is a reserve of collective power that could rise on top at any moment.
Why couldn’t the country keep this level of participation and organization going?
The process was flawed from the very beginning because of an extremely serious contradiction, which is that between understanding grassroot organizations as self-managing and autonomous, built from the bottom of society up, and the fact that the majority of these organizations were the product of public policies, which were encouraged top down, by the State. And this contradiction played out in different ways in every situation. Where there had been previous organization, where there had been community leaders, there was a force to take on the State; not to reject it, but to negotiate.
Furthermore, ever since 2005, there has been a transition in the Bolivarian process from being very open, a process of looking for a social model that is different from the Soviet and liberal capitalism models, to deciding that this system is Socialism, and in understanding this socialism to be state centered. Cuban political ideology has had a lot of influence on this transformation. Then these organizations began to be thought of as tools led from the top, and a Stalinist-style culture began to take root in relation to popular organizations. And this has clearly made the system very precarious.
What is the state of democracy in more liberal terms?
It is obviously much worse [during Maduro’s government], and it is much worse because it’s a government which has lost a lot of legitimacy and is increasingly being rejected by the population. And the opposition has gained significant ground in the political arena. The government used to control all public authorities until it spectacularly lost the (parliamentary) elections in December 2015. And ever since then, the government has responded in more and more authoritarian terms.
First of all, it didn’t recognize the legislature, after first not recognizing the results of a State which took away the qualified majority from the opposition in the Assembly, giving made-up reasons for doing so. Then, there has been a clear lack of recognition of the Assembly as such, which from the government’s standpoint no longer exists, it’s illegitimate. And this is the ways things are, to such an extent that a few months ago, the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) members had to be chosen and the Supreme Court failed to recognize the Assembly and appointed the CNE’s members, which of course are all Chavists.
At the beginning of this year, Maduro had to present an annual report for last year, and because the Assembly isn’t being recognized, the report was presented to the Court. The same thing happened with the state budget. We had a recall referendum which had been legally called for. It should have taken place in November last year and the CNE decided to postpone it, and that meant nipping it in the bud: now there won’t be a recall referendum anymore. The election of state governorships was constitutionally compulsory in December last year, and this was also delayed indefinitely.
So now we are in a situation where there is absolute concentration of power in the President, there isn’t a legislative Assembly. Maduro has already been ruling on his own for over a year after declaring an “emergency” rule by a decree which he has renewed himself, when it needs to be ratified by the Assembly. We are extremely far from what could be called democratic governance. Within this context, responses are becoming increasingly violent, by the media and the opposition, and the government’s response is to repress protests and hold more political prisoners, because it can’t do anything else. The government is making use of every tool in its power to try and keep them in power.
What are the long term consequences of this situation?
I would say that there are three things which are especially worrying out of the consequences of all of this in the medium and long-term. Firstly, the productive fabric of society is being destroyed and it will take a long time to repair it. Recently, there was a presidential decree which opened 112,000 sq.km. to large scale multinational mining activities in an area where 10 indigenous tribes currently have their homes, where the country’s largest water sources are, in the Amazon Rainforest.
Secondly, there’s the issue of how the depth of this crisis is breaking up the fabric of society, and today, society is a lot worse off than it was before Chavez’s government; it’s very hard for me to say this, but this is what’s really going on in Venezuela.
Thirdly, how living conditions have taken a step back in terms of healthcare and food. The government has stopped publishing official data and we have to trust statistics from business associations and some universities, but these indicate that there is systematic weight loss among the Venezuelan population; some estimates say that this is six kilos per person. And this, of course, has an effect on child malnutrition and has long term effects.
Lastly, this has additional effects with regard to the chance of dreaming of change, in any way. The concept of socialism, of alternatives, is being thrown out in Venezuela. The idea that State is fundamentally inefficient and corrupt has taken root. It’s a failure.
What do you think about the reactions international Leftist parties have had, and especially in Latin America, with regard to Venezuela?
I believe that one of the problems, which have dragged itself throughout history, is the special problem we have as the Left in learning from our experiences. In order to learn from your experiences, you must reflect critically upon what happened and why it happened.
Of course, we know the entire story about the complicity that took place between the world’s Communist parties with Stalinism’s horrors, and not because there was a lack of information. It wasn’t that they found out about Joseph Stalin’s crimes afterwards, but there was a complicity which had to do with this judgement that because you are an anti-Imperialist and are fighting against the Empire, we are going to ignore the fact that so many people were killed, we’re not going to talk about that.
I believe that this understanding of solidarity as unconditional solidarity, because there is a Leftist discourse or because there may be anti-Imperialist stances, or because geopolitically-speaking there are contradictions in the ruling sectors of the global system, leads us to not critically investigate the nature of the processes that are taking place.
This creates blind solidarity, without criticizing, which not only means that I didn’t criticize the ally, but that we end up actively celebrating a lot of things which end up being extremely negative.
Chavez’s so-called “super-leadership” was something which was there from the very beginning. Or the primary production model, which the Left recognizes today in its own knowledge that the consequences of this were there. Then, why didn’t they start a debate about these things, so as to critically think about the situation and come up with solutions? Not the European Left coming to tell the Venezuelan people how to steer their revolution, but not this acritical celebration, with justifications for anything.
So, political prisoners aren’t political prisoners. The decline of the economy is the product of an economic war with the international Right and its actions. That’s true, that’s there, but clearly this isn’t enough to explain the depth of the crisis we are experiencing.
The Latin American Left has a historic responsibility with relation to, for example, the way things in Cuba are today, because it assumed that while the blockade against Cuba was in place, then Cuba couldn’t be criticized and this way of thinking went on for many years. However, not criticizing Cuba meant not having the opportunity to critically reflect upon what the process Cuban society is experiencing is about and what the opportunities to enter into a dialogue with Cuban society are, so as to find ways out of their situation.
For a large part of the Cuban population, the fact that they were in a kind of dead-end situation was quite clear on an individual level, but the Cuban government didn’t let this be communicated and the Latin American Left avoided the subject and didn’t contribute anything but their unconditional solidarity.
The most extreme case of this is when it pretends that the Nicaraguan government is a revolutionary government and one of its allies, when in fact it is a government made up of mafias, completely corrupt, which from the standpoint of women’s rights is one of the most oppressive regimes that exists in Latin America, in total alliance with corrupt sectors of the bourgeoisie, with the high command of the Catholic Church, which used to be one of the greatest enemies of the Nicaraguan Revolution.
What does that mean? Negative trends are reinforced which could have been seen. But in addition to this, we don’t learn. If we understand the struggle for anti-capitalist transformation not as a struggle which is happening over there and we have to show solidarity with what they are doing, but rather as everybody’s stuggle, then what you do wrong there, affects us too and I am also responsible for pointing this out and learning from this experience so I don’t repeat the same mistake.
However, we don’t have the ability to learn, because suddenly, when the Venezuelan system collapses, we’ll look somewhere else. And this, like solidarity, like internationalism, like political-intellectual responsibility, is catastrophic.
Why does the Left adopt this attitude?
It has partly to do with the fact that we’ve been unable to rid Leftist ideology of concepts which are too one-dimensional of what is at stake here. If what is at stake is class and anti-imperialism, we think of it in one way. However what if we think that the transformation process today encompasses this, but also includes a feminist critical perspective, through other forms of relationship with Nature, through thinking that the subject of democracy isn’t getting rid of bourgeois democracy, but strengthening democracy.
If we believe that transformation is multi-dimensional because ruling is also multi-dimensional, why this support for Leftist governments and not criticizing their putting indigenous people’s rights in second place, putting environmental devastation in second place, putting the reproduction of patriarchy in second place?
Then we end up judging from a very monolithic view of what anti-capitalist transformation is, which doesn’t have a place in today’s world. And, of course, what good is it to us to throw off the chains of Yankee imperialism if we just go and establish the same kind of relationship with China? There is a political, theoretical, ideological and maybe generational problem, of people who think that this is their last chance to create an alternative society, and refuse to accept the fact that it has failed.