Thinking about Venezuela

12 Aug
this post also features in off-guardian, sparking lively debate

One reason Maduro is despised by the opposition is he refuses to follow the neoliberal economic prescription of austerity, privatization, deregulation, etc. Such refusal makes Venezuela almost unique in Latin America now. As Brazilian professor Dawisson Belem Lopes has written, “Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru have proud neoliberals serving as presidents these days,” even though the “neoliberal experience of the 1990s was disastrous for Latin Americans.”   CounterPunch, August 11, 2017

“We’re all over the world and have troops all over the world”, said Trump. “Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary.”  Guardian, August 12, 2017

It never happened. Nothing happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. The crimes of the United States have been systematic but few have talked about them. America has exercised a clinical manipulation of power while masquerading as force for universal good. It’s a brilliant act of hypnosis, language employed to keep thought at bay.   Harold Pinter, accepting the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature

Setting aside for now the internecine war America’s ruling class is waging on its fantasist in residence at the White House – manifesting itself in the case of Venezuela as anger not at Trump’s desire to get rid of Maduro but, as with Kim in North Korea, his cackhanded way of going about it – I see at least two valid responses thinking people will make to Washington’s ‘concerns’ at the dictatorship it says is emerging in Caracas.

The most basic response, the one most indicative of a functioning brain, can be expressed in two simple questions. Why would anyone in their right mind take such ‘concerns’ at face value when the US record in Latin America – a small but fair sample might include Cuba 1961, Chile 1973 and Honduras 2009 – shows that it cares not one iota for the democratic rights, welfare or prosperity of its peoples? And why would anyone in their right mind take such ‘concerns’ at face value when the US record in any part of the world where oil resides – Iran 1953, devil’s pact with Riyadh and past fifteen years of chaos, destitution and terror in the middle east – shows it cares not one iota for the democratic rights, welfare or prosperity of its people?

Seriously: be it Team Bush or Team Obama, Team Hillary or Team Donaldo, why in God’s name should we see anything here but crocodile tears and icy self interest?

I can think of an answer to that. It’s not a great one but it likely gets at the truth. The reason too few see crocodile tears and icy self interest here is that too many live in what John Pilger, pace  Pinter, recently called an eternal present. That needn’t mean being literally ignorant (though many are) of the fate of Allende or stink of hypocrisy from ‘our’ relations with Riyadh. Life in the pastless present doesn’t require our oblivion to history so much as our oblivion to its ongoing relevance. Those undoubtedly well intentioned people, many of them on the left, who joined the chorus condemning Assad are hardly unaware of Iraq or Libya. To be sure, many of those I’ve engaged with seem pretty clueless about Ba’athism – its strengths and weaknesses, achievements and excesses – but there’s a myopia altogether more elementary at play here: a stubbornly empiricist refusal to join the dots; rather, to view each new situation as isolated and without precedent. Which is one way of saying they don’t grasp the nature of imperialism. It’s bad enough when liberals do this, but when the Eternally Now declare themselves socialists, marxists even, better chaps than I hold their heads and groan.

But back to Venezuela and the question, why believe a word Washington – and by extension a rightwing opposition within the country that always stood to lose from public ownership and fairer taxation a la Chavez – says about the government in Caracas? Not only the phoney tears, but assertions of fact too, should be regarded as suspect till upheld by sources less corrupt. The latter, I might add, no more include the likes of US backed Human Rights Watch on Venezuela than they do US funded ‘White Helmets’ on Syria …

To sum up response number one, it ain’t necessarily so. But for those with most to gain from a Maduro ousted, that’s not the point. Charges of vote rigging on July 30 remain scandalously unsubstantiated – how exactly were those thumb-print validated votes ‘tampered’ with? – but, as with discredited claims of Damascus having used sarin at Ghouta and Idlib, such allegations, repeated ad infinitum in corporate media of both rightist and liberal stripe, tend to stick.

A second response requires more nuanced thinking. I don’t want to labour a point I explore at length in a post on universalism so will be brief. Even where allegations of authoritarianism are upheld, we do well to take note of context. Universalists seldom do this. Implicitly or explicitly, governments across the global south that displease Wall Street, Washington and IMF are held to standards set by the West. Freedoms we enjoy, however, are not only limited and conditional but premised on minimal levels of prosperity, without which direct repression would be needed to maintain a status quo that concentrates wealth created by the many in the hands of the few. History suggests most will tolerate such inequality so long as those minimal prosperity levels hold. But relations of capitalist wealth creation are now globalised in the sense of imperialised nations like Venezuela being tightly integrated in what mainstream economists, disingenuously or naively, call a global value chain.  The long and short of that,  subject of a forthcoming post, is the extraction of super-profits via labour costs held down by a vast army – displaced from the land, too numerous to find full employment in the city and immobilised by immigration controls – of the unemployed within the global south. So freedoms enjoyed in the imperialist West not only do not but cannot  flourish in imperialised nations. To castigate the leaders of movements striving, however imperfectly, to improve things for the super-exploited – on grounds of failure to meet impossible standards – is to pile insult on top of hypocrisy on top of systematic theft.

All the more so when the freedoms in question – ‘rights’ of media owning comprador classes to peddle lies, half truths and blatantly self serving narratives and, a little less obviously, rights of assembly temporarily curtailed in incendiary circumstances – are suspended precisely because to do otherwise must hand victory to reactionary and rapacious forces. Does this sound a shade too Leninist for those whose prime information sources are Guardian and BBC? That bourgeois nationalist Simon Bolivar, a giant in South America’s stormy modern history, had much to say on such dilemmas, none of it kind to universalism. Here’s John Lynch, Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies, writing in History Today.

Bolivar was not so idealistic as to imagine South America ready for pure democracy, or that the law could annul inequalities imposed by nature and society. He spent his whole political life developing and modifying his principles, seeking the elusive mean between democracy and authority. In Bolivar the realist and idealist dwelt in uneasy rivalry.

I rest my case. You’ll note I’ve said next to nothing on the specifics of Venezuela’s current plight. That, you may have guessed, is because I know  next to nothing, though I’m busy playing catch-up. These words aren’t by way of knowing what will or even should happen next. Rather, they are by way of setting out a few parameters of intelligent inquiry. Not as means of bypassing the specifics but as precondition for making reliable sense of them.

Speaking of which, the Guardian, on the eve of last month’s Constituent Assembly election, saw fit to offer a piece entitled, Venezuela to vote amid crisis: all you need to know. Well even I – my eye almost exclusively on the middle east this past eighteen months – could see that what followed so audacious a header failed miserably to deliver on its promise. Luckily, its merciless dissection by Ricardo Vaz in Off-Guardian – The Guardian’s propaganda on Venezuela: all you need to know – does a better job.

4 Replies to “Thinking about Venezuela

  1. “Don’t give me no shit about blood, sweat, tears, and toil, it’s all about the price of oil.”

    Yes, I know, it’s way more complicated than that, but if I have to choose a slogan, I’ll take Billy Bragg’s any time over the US official line and the mainstream media’s supine (yellow-bellied running-dog) demonisation of Venezuelan socialism.

    • Amazing innit how the Graun can follow grudging acknowledgement, that Venezuela’s oil reserves surpass even Saudi Arabia’s, with acres of verbiage predicated on refusal to follow up on the significance of the fact.

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