MAREK JAN CHODAKIEWICZ | THE WEICHERT REPORT
For anyone familiar with civil disobedience in non-democratic regimes, the news from Venezuela look depressingly all too familiar. Workers, farmers, students and intelligentsia keep demonstrating in the streets all over the country. They chant “Down with the dictatorship!” Women pass roses to military forces. They try to persuade the uniformed servicemen to switch sides and support the opposition. Strikes, blockades, hunger marches, food riots, and demands for bread erupt spastically all over the landscape. The capital city of Caracas is the epicenter of the resistance, but the protest have spread everywhere else, too.
Their aim is to overthrow tropical socialism.
Socialist authorities send out phalanxes of the police armed with the truncheons, shields, and tear gas against the demonstrators. Undercover police agents use fire arms. Pro-government militias join in the fray. Local socialist police auxiliaries supported by the tropical Chekists attack the demonstrations from within. Police, just like the military, shoot at people sometimes, but mostly beat them up with truncheons. The photos of an armored vehicle driving into a crowd of people have recently shocked the world. 71 people were injured. The death toll of the last demonstration stands at least 32 protesters.
Violence waxes and wanes rhythmically. At the same time the authorities resort to administrative means to thwart their opponents, the government also dominates the food and industrial product distribution. Government supporters and neutral bystanders receive just enough to survive under the distributionist missions program (misiones), (praised by a progressive Steve Ellner, “Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon”).
The rest must fend for themselves.
Black market beacons is the only viable alternative for them. Hard as it may be to believe, starvation has set in. There is no toilet paper, soap, or medicine. The lack of hygiene triggers diseases spreading far and wide. This condition is exacerbated by an almost complete disintegration of the healthcare system and nearly all other state run services. Here, too, the black market has lent a helping hand. In this context the black market is the free market, as opposed to state mandated condition of enforced misery via socialism. The economy has almost collapsed.
Yet, Venezuela boasts a plentitude of natural resources. Its main treasures are oil and gas. This condition is often referred to as a resource curse. As Raúl Gallegos documents in “Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela,” a blessing in capitalism becomes a curse in socialism. So, quite paradoxically, the abundance of oil and gas ruined the country. The prices of energy are low so they generate little income for the state treasury. Even when they were high, the profit from their sales was squandered by the socialist state bureaucracy. It was also siphoned off by the comrades who were more equal than others. We see similar trends in present day Russia: where the economy is heavily dependent on oil and natural gas and only a handful of elites truly benefit from that trade.
Nonetheless, an unlimited supply of dollars flowing into the country in exchange for oil allowed for the so-called Petro Diplomacy combined with extreme anti-American rhetoric to define Venezuela’s politics. The Chavista leaders dispatched oil both to the likeminded dictatorships, to shore them up, and to free countries, to indulge in public diplomacy to fool their publics. Meanwhile, Venezuela created an oil-based coalition with Russia, China, and Iran. The fall of the energy prices led to its collapse. Just as Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold outline in their book on the subject, “Dragon In the Tropics: Hugo Chávez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela,” when there is less and less to steal in Caracas, the comrades panic, while people suffer.
An eclectic coalition has been trying to topple the socialist government. Thus, the situation has become increasingly unstable, especially given the fact that even some of the members of the governing elite have tried to curry favor with the opposition (The New York Times, May 6). The opposition is a spontaneously, mass mobilized, broad coalition of people of various ideological, political, or even ethnic backgrounds.
Let’s take, for instance, one of the most colorful oppositionists, the governor of the Miranda State, Henrique Capriles Radonski. This grandson of Polish Jews, raised as a Catholic, is a progressive liberal. He is one of the leaders of the Justice First party (Primero Justicia). The supporters of the government churlishly denounced him as a “Jew” and a “faggot”. At the beginning of April, the regime outlawed Capriles’ political activities. He has been banned from public office for 15 years. He has appealed, hoping that an able lawyer will get him out of the quandary.
Resorting to law is a typical weapon in the hands of the government. Accordingly, some of the opposition leaders have been sentenced to jail; some have been excluded from the political life; and others have emigrated. Indeed, the socialist Supreme Court recently disbanded the Parliament because it was dominated by the opposition coalition known as the Democratic Round Table (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática).
The regime has retreated tactically from this outrageous provocation, but now the comrades promise to introduce legislation to create a single party state. They already called “the people” to create a “constituent assembly” to abrogate de facto the parliament. Half of its members are supposed to be elected, while the other half will be appointed by the committees of “the persecuted” – that is the supporters of the present regime. At this point, however, the Venezuelan government has not yet dared to introduce this bold plan because Donald Trump is the President of the United States and the Venezuelan rulers fear an American intervention–whether it is likely or not
What is Venezuela’s problem precisely? The people protest against the dictatorship of president Nicolás Maduro, the leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela). Maduro is a leading champion of “chavismo, ” an ideology also referred to as the “Bolivarian movement”. This ideology was created and implemented by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, a career military officer and revolutionary leader in Venezuela.
Chávez camouflaged his revolutionary Marxism-Leninism with a generous dose of indigenous nationalism. Hence, he embraced Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the liberator of Latin America from the Spanish colonial rule there. Chávez, however, was chiefly inspired by the Soviet Union and – first and foremost – Communist Cuba. Until today, Havana remains one of the main international partners of Caracas, as Carlos A Romero outlines in his 2010 assessment.
In 1982. Chávez created an underground organization known as the MBR-200. Its goal was to impose socialism on Venezuela by revolutionary means. A red coup d’état in 1992 failed and Chávez landed prison. After his “Tiempo libre” speech ending the coup, Chávez was imprisoned. However, his prison term did not last long. He was ultimately freed and – despite he and his comrades’ distaste for parliamentary democracy – Chávez reluctantly stood for an election, and surprisingly won.
In 1998 he became Venezuela’s president.
Chávez won because he had skillfully inflamed class and ethnic struggle. The struggle in question, according to Chávez, was defined by the “evil” of the so-called Puntofijo Pact. The Puntofijo Pact united Christian socialists, democratic liberals, and Christian democrats against any type of dictatorship and red revolution. However, the Pact resulted in severe corruption and fossilization of the political system. Further, the Pact excluded the poorest Venezuelans, known as los indigenos. These were the descendants of the original Venezuelan Indians. Kirk A Hawkin’s book, “Venezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective,” details how Chávez manipulated the dispossessed in Venezuela to gain power.
Class struggle combined with ethnic struggle to catapult Chávez to power under populist and egalitarian slogans. He believed in them but did not practice them, which ultimately led to tyranny (idealism and hypocrisy of the Venezuelan leader have been very well explained by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “Two Faces of Hugo Chavez,” NACLA Report on the Americas. Michael Coppedge wrote in his 2003 piece, “Venezuela: Popular Sovereignty versus Liberal Democracy” that, in Venezuela, instead of “liberal democracy,” the regime has given us the “voice of the people,” which speaks through the mouth of a socialist dictator. Coppedge’s piece was featured here:
Initially, the new president was indeed popular with the people. His motto was “who is not with us is against us.” Chávez was able to get by thanks to hateful rhetoric and social engineering tricks – be it tax increases on “the rich” or land redistribution. He kept nationalizing and collectivizing. He expanded his party structures carefully, penetrating even in the slums where the project committees were established. Confiscations and taxes paralyzed the economy, but Venezuela was able to pretend to prosper because of high energy prices. When they collapsed, a sordid reality reared its ugly socialist face. The socialist experiment imploded – as usual. It was just another road to nowhere, as ably captured by a leftist, Teodoro Petkoff, in “El Chavismo Como Problema”.
In 2013 Chávez died from cancer and Maduro took over. He is determined to defend socialism at any price. Meanwhile, even some of the staunchest supporters of Bolivarismo have deserted El Presidente. The slum dwellers have joined the demonstrations. And so have the retirees. Students seem to have rejected Chavismo en bloc.
Can the opposition sustain the momentum? What can be done to help them?
The best solution at present would be to repeat the scenario of 1958 when the military organized a pronunciamiento, toppled dictatorship, and restored parliamentarism. Today, however, the military is under the command by the uniformed Bolivarian nomenklatura who control, among others, the Venezuelan gold mines as well as food and drug trafficking. For the military reds, socialism is too comfortable to overthrow it. Lower military ranks may perhaps come to the rescue, but that may be a forlorn hope on the account of their assiduous indoctrination in the joys of Bolivarianism.
What’s in store? The regime would like to impose martial law and stage a constitutional coup d’état.
One thing is certain: Socialism won’t go away easily. Perhaps the Organization of the American States should intervene militarily. The US should discreetly help organize, arm, and cheer a Latin expeditionary force.
Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is the Kościuszko Chair at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. where he conducts research on East Central Europe and Russia. His expert areas include History, Democracy Building, Communism, American Foreign Policy and International Relations. His most recent book, “Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and Baltic Seas”, was published in 2012 by Transaction Publishers.