Don’t be fooled by the sight of protests in Venezuela: this time the anti-democratic villains are not in government but in the US-backed opposition.
I’ve been away for the past week so I wasn’t able to write anything on the unfolding turmoil in Venezuela, but I’ve been following the situation closely and in recent days have grown increasingly frustrated with (a) the total lack of balanced reporting on Venezuela in the international media, including left-liberal publications like The Guardian; (b) the seeming ease with which comrades on the libertarian left ignore the events in Venezuela as if it were somehow “irrelevant” to our cause, simply because we’re not supposed to have any close ideological affinity with chavismo; and (c) the ill-informed basis on which many activists and even several major movement pages have taken the side of the protesters against the government, unquestioningly sharing the propaganda of the right-wing opposition and echoing dangerously superficial and wrongheaded interpretations about the protests. I intend to write more on this later, but here are some initial reflections:
1. Just because there’s people in the streets doesn’t mean they’re on our side. We live in the era of the protester, and violent protest has become a media spectacle par excellence. In the wake of Tahrir and Occupy, we have been conditioned to automatically feel sympathy for all men and women taking to the streets and facing down lines of riot police. Now there’s a YouTube clip floating around the web of a Venezuelan girl with an obnoxious upper-class American accent recounting the story of Venezuela’s heroic student uprising against an “illegitimate government”. At first sight, the video — which garnered over 2 million views so far — seems to neatly fit the narrative of the global uprisings. But anyone who cares to do some fact-checking or background research will quickly discover that the protests in Venezuela are rather different from Occupy or the Chilean student movement.
2. The protests in Venezuela are (at least partly) orchestrated by the right-wing oligarchy. Let’s get the facts straight: plenty of Venezuelans are taking to the streets with legitimate grievances about violent crime, high inflation and food shortages — and there is no doubt that the Venezuelan riot police are indeed behaving violently towards many of these protesters. All police brutality should be roundly condemned. The people of Venezuela should be allowed to freely express their indignation in public without fear of repression. But it bears emphasizing in this respect that at least two of the protesters’ main grievances have been deliberately escalated by the oligarchic elite itself: through extensive hoarding and smuggling of consumer products (giving rise to shortages and fueling price inflation) and massive speculation on the foreign currency market (pushing down the Bolívar and feeding into further inflation). This is precisely the type of economic warfare that the US-backed Chilean opposition drew upon prior to the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973.
Moreover, even though the protests initially began as a student mobilization on Venezuela’s national Youth Day (February 12), they have in the past week become effectively subsumed under the leadership of the most right-wing section of the opposition alliance, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), led by Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo López. As the firebrand leaders of the most anti-democratic faction of the oligarchic elite, López and Machado have been actively calling for the overthrow of Nicolas Maduro’s democratically-elected government and have urged the continuation of violent protest until he resigns. In the last 15 years, these people have shown themselves to be intent on restoring their class privilege at any costs, even if it requires casualties among the general population. They are deliberately fueling violence and social unrest in order to delegitimize and oust the government.
3. Venezuela’s opposition receives active support from the United States. While there is no evidence that the ongoing protests have been directly machinated by the White House or the CIA, it is publicly known that leading Venezuelan opposition groups receive millions of dollars in financial support from the US government and US-based NGOs and think tanks. In 2008, a leader of Venezuela’s student movement — which organized similar anti-Chávez protests back in 2007 — won the $500.000 Milton Friedman Award from the right-libertarian CATO Institute, which is funded by major corporate sponsors like the Koch Brothers and the Ford Foundation, headed by an “ardent devotee” of Ayn Rand, and driven by a zealous mission to defend “the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.”
All in all, it is estimated that various “youth outreach” programs in Venezuela received at least $45 million from US sponsors. Furthermore, the Obama administration has earmarked at least $5 million to directly support Venezuela’s opposition parties through 2014 — not to mention the secret ties that undoubtedly exists between the opposition and the US intelligence community. This comes on top of the dozens of millions of dollars that have been donated to the opposition over the years. Not surprising, perhaps, given that Venezuela is sitting on top of the largest known oil reserves in the world, just around the corner from the US.
4. The democratic credentials of Maduro’s government are not in question. The US-backed opposition, which is now openly calling for Maduro’s salida (exit) considers his government “illegitimate”. This is absurd, because even judging by the limited standards of liberal constitutionalism, the democratic legitimacy of Maduro’s administration is unsurpassed. In 15 years, the United Socialist Party has won 18 elections and lost only one. Venezuela’s electoral system has been described by former US President Jimmy Carter — who has observed elections in 92 different countries on all continents — as “the best system in the world.” Just two months ago, in December 2013, the government won 76% of all local municipalities in midterm elections and decisively defeated the opposition, led by the “moderate” Henrique Capriles, by more than 10 percentage points. Much more than this, the government has been actively working together with grassroots movements to create one of the world’s most vibrant experiments in direct and participatory democracy, giving rise to thousands of communal councils, hundreds of communes and tens of thousands of worker-run cooperatives. In no other country in the world is citizen participation in politics and the economy as actively stimulated by the state as it is in Venezuela.
5. The right-wing opposition is itself thoroughly anti-democratic. The really dangerous forces in Venezuela right now are not inside the “illegitimate government” but in the thoroughly anti-democratic right-wing segment of the opposition. A quick glance at the two opposition leaders — Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo López — reveals enough. Both were original signatories of the infamous 2002 Carmona Decree, which temporarily dissolved the Chávez government following an attempted coup d’étât by the oligarchic elite and right-wing elements in the military. López, meanwhile, orchestrated the violent clashes in front of the Presidential Palace, which led to dozens of deaths and provided the pretext for the coup. During the coup, López even personally participated in the unconstitutional arrest (i.e., kidnapping) of Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin.
When chavista loyalists in the army and the movements reinstated the President, Chávez decided not to pursue vengeance and allowed the conspirators to walk free. Machado went on to found Súmate, an “NGO” that received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington (where she received a personal welcome from President George W. Bush), which played a central role in the failed recall referendum that sought to oust Chávez two years after the failed coup. López was allowed to remain mayor of Chacao, the wealthiest district of Caracas, before being prosecuted by the government on corruption charges in 2006. In 2007, López was caught on tape planning to bring about a new political crisis by creating social instability. Is it really such a stretch to suspect him of being involved in a renewed attempt to destabilize the government through violent and anti-democratic means?
6. The 2014 protests look like a replay of the run-up to the 2002 coup. All the above reveals some unsettling historical parallels between the failed 2002 coup and the ongoing turmoil in Venezuela: leading US-funded opposition figures deliberately stir social unrest in the hope that the government will be thoroughly de-legitimized by the resultant street violence so the right can take over. Once again, the oligarchic elite is trying to achieve through illiberal means what it could not achieve peacefully: the ouster of the Socialist government and the repression of the Bolivarian Revolution and its radical experiment in direct democracy, social solidarity and workers’ control.
All of this clearly illustrates the opposition’s despair: first they tried a military coup; when that failed they tried to bring down the government through an oil strike; when that failed they unsuccessfully pursued a recall referendum; then they ran out of ideas and simply boycotted National Assembly elections for no legitimate reason whatsoever; in 2007 they tried their hands at a student rebellion; and, following Maduro’s victory in last year’s elections, Capriles kept ordering recounts and refusing to recognize the election outcome even while it was clear to everyone — including independent election observers — that he had lost. Finally, after Capriles’ humiliating defeat in the December municipal elections, the right-wing of the opposition decided to abandon the electoral road and return to the old-fashioned coup preparation tactics of 2002. As before, these anti-democratic maneuvers may end up backfiring on the right by rallying the grassroots movements behind the government and further strengthening Maduro’s internal position within the United Socialist Party.
7. The media is the problem. A crucial point: the reason so few people seem to know about any of the above is simply because there is hardly any balanced reporting on Venezuela, and because many people are simple-minded enough to just buy anything they read on Twitter or Facebook without doing any fact-checking or further background research at all. When it comes to Venezuela, in particular, the international media — including beloved “progressive” outlets like The Guardian — are so full of shit that they have become an embarrassment to the journalistic profession as such, while social networks are so awash in falsehoods and propaganda that some media scholars would have to seriously revise their post-2011 theories about the “democratizing” effects of Facebook and Twitter.
The international media are fond to talk about Chávez’ and Maduro’s crackdown on the Venezuelan media and their censorship of the public debate, but it turns out that, as in the West, Venezuela’s media is overwhelmingly privately owned by the country’s richest business elites. In 2012, the BBC noted that only 4.58% of the country’s TV and radio channels actually belong to the state. The three national newspapers — El Universal, El Nacional and Ultimas Noticias, accounting for 90% of the country’s readership — are all anti-government. Of the four main national TV channels, three — Venevision, Globovision and Televen, similarly accounting for 90% of the audience — are aligned with the opposition. The international media (along with the admins of important social movement pages on Facebook and Twitter) simply echo the right-wing narrative emanating from Venezuela’s highly concentrated corporate media landscape without asking any critical questions whatsoever.
8. Venezuela constitutes a challenge to the US and its neoliberal hegemony. The inherent bias of the corporate media is one of the main reasons why you never read that income inequality in Venezuela — once one of highest in Latin America — has now been reduced to the lowest on the continent, while shared growth and redistributive social programs have cut poverty in half and reduced extreme poverty by a whopping 70% since 2002. Illiteracy was eradicated and vast improvements were made in health, housing and education. Just some indicators of social progress: infant mortality fell by more than one-third; the number of social security beneficiaries more than doubled; the amount of primary healthcare physicians in the public sector increased 12-fold from 1999 to 2007, providing healthcare to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access; and education enrollment rates more than doubled from 1999 to 2008.
This is the “evil regime” the US-backed right-wing opposition is hoping to overthrow. In reality, it is an experiment in democratic socialism that seeks to build popular power through direct democratic institutions like councils, communes and cooperatives. Of course this process is riven with internal contradictions and marked by major shortcomings. I am no chavista and I do not have any illusions that Venezuela’s bureaucratic apparatus, violent cities and troubled economy somehow constitute a socialist utopia. But there’s clearly something here that’s driving the US and the Venezuelan elite mad: a popular regime is challenging the hegemony of neoliberalism and building up its own institutions of communal organization that may one day come to complement or even supplant the bourgeois state. This means that, even if the right ever wins back power, they will still be faced with a formidable popular counter-power in the neighborhoods and working places. Libertarian socialists and autonomous movements elsewhere should not deny these important advances but stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Venezuela’s grassroots movements as they seek to defend themselves from this anti-democratic onslaught by the US-backed elite; all while remaining fiercely critical of all forms of police brutality and state repression carried out against protesters in the name of the Socialist government.
While the Venezuelan left has made some important social advances, none of this means that we should uncritically praise Maduro’s government or chavismo more generally (for more on that, check out the essay on the contradictions of Chávez’ legacy that I wrote after his death). But it does mean that we — as activists, journalists and organizers — should start doing some serious fact-checking before mindlessly regurgitating the shallow propaganda we are fed by the mainstream media every day. Here are some reliable alternative sources to take a look at: Popular Resistance, Democracy Now, Venezuela Analysis, ZNet, Upside Down World, CEPR. If you know of any other good sources (in English or Spanish) please share them in the comments below.
¡La lucha sigue!
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