Argument

The Left Keeps Getting Venezuela Wrong

Anti-imperialists prefer a Russian-backed dictator to a public revolt.

Venezuelan opposition supporters gather to listen to the head of Venezuela's National Assembly and the country's self-proclaimed acting president, Juan Guaidó, during a rally in Caracas on Jan. 26. (FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Venezuelan opposition supporters gather to listen to the head of Venezuela's National Assembly and the country's self-proclaimed acting president, Juan Guaidó, during a rally in Caracas on Jan. 26. (FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuela is engulfed in a government-inflicted economic crisis twice the size of the Great Depression, which has provoked the largest movement of refugees in the recent history of Latin America. Meanwhile, the regime that has presided over this catastrophe is morphing from a nasty autocracy to a potentially full-blown dictatorship.

The American right is already using the failure of Venezuelan socialism as a means to attack the socialist movement. Yet Venezuelans are starving, and to weaponize the fact merely to bash the left represents not only the height of bad taste but also the maximum of solipsism. The posturing of pundits is insignificant next to the suffering on the ground.

But while such criticisms are often made in bad faith, the Western left does need to take a serious look at itself over Venezuela—not least because of what it says about the health of leftist elements that, in Britain and elsewhere, are close to attaining real power.

If you’re familiar with Cuban politics, the so-called Bolivarian Revolution begun by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been ringing alarm bells for many years now. The idolization of a charismatic leader, the unwillingness of the regime to brook any opposition, the gross economic mismanagement, and blaming every failure on the machinations of the United States—all are familiar tropes for Cuba watchers.

Yet much of the Western socialist left has persisted in ignoring the trajectory of Venezuela in order to sustain a fantasy of “21st-century socialism.” It’s reminiscent of the Western apologists for the Soviet Union that Arthur Koestler once compared to peeping Toms “who watch History’s debauches through a hole in the wall” while not having to experience it themselves.

This willingness to stand by a brutal dictator—albeit passively—belies a deeper sickness on the contemporary left. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, few on the left have had much real idea as to what a contemporary socialist economic program would—or should—look like in practice.

Twenty-first century socialism in Venezuela was supposed to offer hope, but it turned out to represent yet another mirage, this time built on the back of exorbitantly high oil prices. As prices dropped, mismanagement of the state-run oil company, PDVSA, by the Chávez and Nicolás Maduro governments saw Venezuela’s oil output fall to 1.34 million barrels a day in June of last year—the lowest point in seven decades, excluding the 2002-2003 strike. This, together with ill-conceived price controls, has reduced the country to beggary.

However, this isn’t the most dangerous failing. Much of the Western left, including those who once had only kind words for Chávez and his successors, is treating Venezuela as an embarrassment best brushed under the carpet. Yet what is really frightening are those who, under the guise of anti-imperialism, consistently favor dictators—as long as they mouth anti-American platitudes.

To be sure, we should be wary of loose talk of regime change in Venezuela on the part of the Trump administration. While Donald Trump is correct in calling for Maduro to step aside, U.S. belligerence would be more hindrance than help for any route back to democracy. Not only is there a long history of U.S. intervention on the part of some of the worst right-wing actors in Latin America, American aggression is more likely to hand Venezuela’s ruling elite the excuse they need to wage a further crackdown on internal dissent than to aid an opposition that needs to prove its legitimacy at home, not abroad.

But it’s possible to oppose U.S. interventionism without making further excuses for the dictatorship in Caracas. The unequivocal statements put out by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders make a nonsense of the idea that the left has some duty to protect dictators simply because they purport to be socialists. Sanders accused the Maduro government last week of waging a “violent crackdown on Venezuelan civil society” while warning of the possible dangers of U.S. aggression.

Sanders notwithstanding, much of the anti-imperialist left has had a bad habit of putting itself on the side of the powerful, as long as they conduct their atrocities at home. “A US backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face. Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition will only incite violence and further destabilize the region,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, referring to Venezuela’s social democratic opposition. Meanwhile, Tulsi Gabbard, a 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and Democratic congresswoman, met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2017, has labeled the entire opposition to Assad “terrorists,” and supported a bill to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from resettling in the United States.

Take Euromaidan in Ukraine, the struggle against Assad in Syria, and the ongoing protests in Venezuela. In each case, many on the left failed to offer solidarity to the people of these countries as they risked their lives confronting brutal regimes. In fact, the opposite has occurred: In most cases, prominent leftists have rushed to smear the rebels as “fascists,” “head choppers,” and, in Venezuela, “right-wing extremists.”

Even last week, the far-left sought to portray events inside Venezuela as a coup, profoundly misunderstanding the dynamics at play. The nearest thing to a coup in Venezuela took place in 2017, when Maduro supplanted the democratically elected National Assembly with a complaisant rubber-stamping body. As Washington Post contributor Francisco Toro wrote, since his election in 2013, “Nicolás Maduro has pursued a merciless campaign to strip away democratic checks and balances, culminating in a monstrous Constitutional Convention rigged so only his supporters can win.” The 2018 presidential election in Venezuela, boycotted by the opposition, was described by former U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as a vote that did not “in any way fulfill minimal conditions for free and credible elections.”

Under the guise of anti-imperialism, those on the far-left have made themselves useful idiots for actual imperialists—as long as they’re not American. They have used the specter of Western intervention to ignore or downplay real interventions on the part of other powerful imperial nations. This was true in Syria with Russian and Iranian interference, and it is true in Venezuela, where Russia has supplied Venezuela with billions of dollars’ worth of arms and flown in personal bodyguards for Maduro. Meanwhile, thousands of intelligence operatives from the dictatorship in Cuba help the Venezuelan regime to spy on the opposition and police dissent.

If imperialism is the “highest stage of capitalism,” as Vladimir Lenin once observed, then the perversion of anti-imperialism bandied about by the contemporary Western left is the most sordid incarnation of contemporary socialism. Activists, protestors, and opposition politicians in countries such as Venezuela and Syria are treated by the followers of this crude doctrine as if they possessed no agency at all and are merely the pawns of American capital. A center-left figure like newly recognized Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó—literally a member of the Socialist International—is smeared as a member of the “far-right opposition” simply because he’s backed by the United States. Trump doesn’t like Maduro; ergo, the latter’s crimes must be excused away or attributed to the actions of the United States.

The anti-imperialist left in the West is demanding that the United States refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Venezuela. Fair enough. The trouble begins when you ask whether Venezuelans such as Luisa Ortega Díaz, Chávez’s former chief prosecutor-turned-dissident; Renzo Prieto, the student leader who spent four years behind bars for organizing a 2014 protest; or the country’s elected National Assembly should be entitled to meddle in their own internal affairs—and get back only a stony-faced silence.

James Bloodworth is an English journalist and writer. He is the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

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