Twenty years ago, Hugo Chávez proclaimed the dawn of a new era of social justice in Venezuela after his landslide presidential election. He spoke of creating a “21st-century socialism.” He cut poverty and unemployment in half and doubled government spending on health care and education. Grassroots movements had experiments in “participatory democracy.” His party won 16 of 17 elections held between 1998 and 2012. Chávez had a cult of personality but he wasn’t a dictator. Jimmy Carter, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work through the election-monitoring Carter Center, proclaimed in 2012: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
Chávez’s social advances were made possible by the high price of oil from 2003 to 2008 and 2010 through mid-2014. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. It depends on oil for 95 percent of its exports. Unfortunately, this extreme dependency on oil has its downside. In the market, whatever goes up will eventually go down.
In a report on Chávez in 2000, the late Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil was skeptical of the triumphalist celebration of Chávez. He said it was problematic that many believed Venezuela could break from the past with a “revolutionary magic,” which is “rooted in a traditional reliance on a messianic leader which has found in Venezuela’s subsoil a fertile source of inspiration and rich resources with which to pursue it.” Coronil said that ever since Venezuela became a major oil exporter, there have arisen heads of state of different political stripes who “appear as extraordinary figures capable of conjuring up the most fantastic dreams of progress.”
Fast forward to today. Alejandro Velasco, associate professor of modern Latin America at New York University and an editor of the leftist NACLA Report on the Americas, notes that the massive improvements in the lives of ordinary people introduced by Chávez have “suffered deep reversals.”
He goes on: “Hyperinflation has made wage gains and the currency worthless. Corruption, the target of Chávez’s first election in 1998, exploded during his government as a fixed exchange rate coupled with a wave of petrodollars created incentives for currency speculation, now the primary source of wealth and influence for Chávista elites.
“Years of electoral legitimacy hard-won through mass mobilization efforts in vote after vote now lies sacrificed by naked manipulation of electoral rules aimed at keeping Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, and a narrowing circle of confidants in power. Meanwhile, grassroots movements, once the lifeblood of Chávismo’s most exciting and progressive experiments in popular power, grow increasingly marginalized by a government ever deafer to their mounting critiques.”
Bernie Sanders got it right when he issued a statement criticizing both Maduro and Trump:
“The Maduro government in Venezuela has been waging a violent crackdown on Venezuelan civil society, violated the constitution by dissolving the National Assembly and was re-elected last year in an election that many observers said was fraudulent. Further, the economy is a disaster and millions are migrating. The United States should support the rule of law, fair elections and self-determination for the Venezuelan people. We must condemn the use of violence against unarmed protesters and the suppression of dissent. However, we must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups — as we have in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. The United States has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries; we must not go down that road again.”
Mexico, Uruguay and the Vatican have offered to mediate between Maduro and the opposition.
You wouldn’t know it from the U.S. mainstream media, but there is a dissident left in Venezuela.
On Jan. 19, the Citizen Platform in Defense of the Constitution (PCDC) held a press conference at the Central University of Venezuela campus, saying, “No to the parallel state imposed by the United States, the European Union and the Lima Group,” but also declaring its rejection of the “sell-out [entreguista] and unconstitutional regime of Nicolás Maduro.” The statement called for a popular referendum to “renovate all the public powers” in the country. The PCDC is made up of long-time social leaders of the left, including former cabinet ministers under Chávez and followers of the Socialist Tide (Marea Socialista) Party.
Venezuelan left intellectual Edgardo Lander, who is active in PCDC, initiated an international declaration by a group of 120 people including academics, writers, lawyers and journalists from Latin America, North America and Europe. Their main demands are:
“We reject the authoritarianism of the Maduro government, as well as the government’s repression in the face of growing protests throughout the country, for food, transportation, health, political participation, public services, living wages, among others. The Venezuelan people, who suffer the enormous precariousness and the current repression, have the right to protest without being criminalized for it.
“We reject the self-proclamation of Juan Guaidó and the creation of a parallel State in the country, which will only lead to greater conflict and does not solve the main problems the country is facing.
“We repudiate any anti-democratic political shortcut that does not pay tribute to a peaceful solution decided by the people.
“We reject U.S. interventionism, as well as any other form of foreign interference.”
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.