Venezuela: cheerleading the Pinochet option

Capriles and MaduroWhen the most constructive thing you can find to say about a country facing the real possibility of a military coup is to brand Seumas Milne the moral equivalent of Gary Glitter, you need to consider whether you ought to be commenting on international politics in the first place.

Yet such was the basic premise of Nick Cohen’s column in The Observer this Sunday, which opens with the contention that supporters of the Venezuelan government are “no different” to sex tourists.

Labour’s communications chief is specifically compared to a “breathless western punter”, on the basis of a 2012 opinion piece that extravagantly praised the top down petrodollar-funded social reforms initiated by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Note the venomous casual elision of the morality displayed in visiting somewhere out of admiration for the local political system – whether misguided or not – and clocking up air miles for the sole purpose of raping pre-teens. Stay classy, Nick.

Nor is Cohen alone in attempting to hijack the disarray indisputably unfolding in Caracas as a convenient opportunity to trash talk the Labour Party in Britain.

The Telegraph website carries a recent piece by Ian Birrell, under the headline: ‘The Left who lust after a Socialist paradise should look at what’s happening in Venezuela.’ And you can guess where this is going, can’t you? “To understand why the thought of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister is so alarming, take a look at the unfurling chaos in Venezuela,” the author writes in the first sentence.

That chaos is unfurling in Venezuela is incontrovertible. With triple-digit hyperinflation, food shortages, regular power outages and public sector workers reduced to a two-day week, the facts of the country’s economic predicament are not in any doubt.

Nor can it be gainsaid that many of these problems flow directly from policy failure, most notably resort to printing money in response to plummeting oil prices. The historical precedents – from Weimar Germany to Zimbabwe – are as familiar as they are unhappy.

But economic obstruction on the part of the private sector, in its wilful politically-driven desire to undermine Chavismo, is another major factor in this toxic cocktail.

How it follows that this situation foreshadows what might happen to Britain with Corbyn in Number Ten is anyone’s guess. Labour is explicitly committed to fiscal credibility, and last time I checked, providing subsidised oil to Cuba in exchange for the services of doctors wasn’t official party policy.

Birrell brushes any such complexities aside, being quite sure where to apportion blame. What we are seeing is ‘a modern tragedy driven by deluded leftists’, as if that were the end of the story, with Labour just gagging to follow the Venezuelan lead.

More importantly, Birrell knows what is the answer is, too. Venezuela’s 21st century socialism, which has until now ensured food and medical care for the many of the country’s poorest, has to go. How Venezuelans must yearn for a dose of “failed neoliberal policies”,’ he concludes. If that is the way they feel, the chances seem to be growing that they will get the chance to live under them soon enough. 

So polarised have matters become that Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in the 2013 presidential contest, has openly demanded that the military overthrow the Maduro administration. The call does not come in isolation, either. It was made just weeks after an editorial in the Washington Post declared there to be a desperate need for unspecified ‘political intervention’ in Venezuela by neighbouring countries.

You don’t have to be a starry-eyed fanboy for the so-called Bolivarian revolution – and that I never have been – to grasp the reality on the ground.

The Venezuelan right are decidedly not a bunch of fluffy nice guy liberals manque, patiently whiling away their evenings with bridge hands and G&Ts at the country club until the electorate, in its wisdom, finally decides to bestow it with the keys to the presidential palace.

Having already attempted one coup against Chavez, in 2002, it will have learned the lessons of its failure. This time around, any bid to seize power will be all the more ruthless in its determination. How ironic that rightist detractors frequently dub Chavez and Maduro ‘dictators’. Whether or not one views their actions with approbation, both men took office on the basis of a democratic mandate.

By contrast, if the army moves, Venezuela will get the full-on real deal, a brutal military regime committed to free market economics of the most extreme persuasion. Its first act will be dismantle the social programmes that are the legacy of Chavez. Yet neither Cohen nor Birrell, neither man an ingenue, sees fit to mention this threat. In terms of serious political commentary, this is tantamount to culpable neglect.

So avid are they to blast Maduro – and of course, the Labour Party, by way of ancillary target – that such an outcome simply doesn’t appear to matter to them.

By all means sharply criticise the current Venezuelan government. Criticise it as stridently and frequently as the fancy takes you. Urge it to reform, urge the voters to throw it out, to the limited extent that the Observer and Telegraph can hope to sway the populace of the barrios. Use it as proxy for snide sideswipes at Jezza, if you really, really must.

But at least be aware of what will follow if it falls to a coup; the documented human rights failings of Chavez and Maduro are guaranteed to pale by comparison. And the tankies of the right will be cheering them on.

If it’s a choice between critical support for an elected leftwing government trying to implement a heavy-handed vision of social justice and cocking it up bigtime, and helping prepare public opinion for Venezuela’s Pinochet, nobody still claiming to be a democrat or a progressive should think twice.

  1. Theglitter comparison was crass,but Glitter of course hid his crimes, and the fact do gooders are denying obvious oppression by the government in Venezuala,is comparable
    And just saying it’s better than Chile is hardly a defence

  2. The major reason for the electricity shortages is drought – 70% of Venezuela’s electricity is hydro and it has barely rained for 3 years. Not so much a result of too much socialism but poor historic choices of deciding to rely on water power.

  3. My god, the Venezuelan case is depressing. Many of their problems arise from very specific policy failures (ineffective exchange controls, unworkable price regulations, failure to diversify the economy, etc.) and many others from corruption. None of this is intrinsic to socialism, but of course all of the antisocialists out there use Venezuela as an example of socialism’s failure. It’s all the more depressing since the Maduro administration not only has been unwilling to implement even the simpler fixes but doesn’t even seem to acknowledge the magnitude of the problems. While I always had strongly mixed feelings about Chavez, at the very least he seemed to be more competent than Maduro. The latter has massively failed the socialist movement both in Venezuela and around the world.

  4. Yes and it’s all so sad in Venezuala but perhaps the Left in Latin America needs to learn bottom up socialist practice instead of top down as the Right (probably advised and supported secretly by the US) are up to their usual UNDEMOCRATIC dirty tricks.
    Some of the Western Left visiting Chavez a few years ago advised them then to diversify and not to rely on oil and tragically such progressive governments are now being hammered by low oil prices.
    If only they had invested in solar power instead of water power and followed Uraguay’s example where 95% of its energy comes from renewable sources.
    If the Latin Left had followed a grassroots approach then things would have been nailed down for when the right wing carpet baggers try to come for their resources, and as I speak US oil TNCs will be lining up like capitalist vultures for when Venezualan oil is privatised.
    The Left in Latin America are all being weakened and we should stand by them but for now their only hope is if their working classes/working people will rally to them otherwise its going to be a boomtime for the rich and misery for the Latin American poor.
    International solidarity!

    • Venezuela is a complicated, contradictory, place. There have been some genuine attempts to create a “socialism from below,” both in terms of popular movements and government policy. For example, there were some experiments with self-organization in some of the nationalized industries (electricity was one, I think) and there were also the communal councils which are supposed to take over many government functions. I think that there has been genuine desire among parts of the government (and much of its grassroots support) to see these efforts and I’m, perhaps too charitably, willing to believe that this is where Chavez’s heart lay.

      Unfortunately, such efforts have seen at best mixed success. Part (perhaps most?) of this seems to be due to hostility within certain parts of the government to having their power eroded. I’m not denying that there has been altogether too much power concentrated in the President’s office (although apparently this was started as an attempt to sidestep the corrupt bureaucracy) and, of course, the PSUV is horrendously top-down and undemocratic (for which Chavez is at least partially to blame). But to simply view Venezuela as a hopelessly top-down attempt to build socialism, as this article does, is to miss the very large contradictions and conflicts at play among the left there.

  5. It’s also all very worrying in Europe with the rise of the far Right; fortunately a Green just beat the grotesque so called Freedom Movement in Austria for President – so for now the far Right in Austria has just been told to PissHofer!
    But the export of Blairism to Labour Parties in Europe has left them empty and soulless and standing for nothing and left wing democratic socialist forces in all these Parties need to try to do like us and get a Corbyn type in and then take on the grotesque Far Rights!
    At times it can be a depressing World but with strong left wing, grassroots, bottom up., participatory,democratic socialist ideas we can fight back and unite diverse working people internationally!

  6. I can’t stand the journalism of Nick Cohen, especially the way that he takes a position that is extremely marginal (does anybody actually know anyone who has indulged in “radical tourism” to Venezuela? I don’t, and most of my friends are lefties with passports) and then extrapolates it to attack the entire “left”. It’s utterly dishonest, although I’m pretty convinced he does it mainly for the “cash for controversy” benefits.

    That said, I’m not really prepared to shed any tears of sympathy for Milne, as he’s prepared to act as an apologist for numerous crappy regimes of the left (such as Venezuela) or, actually more commonly, the right (Russia, Syria, Ennahda in Tunisia). Regimes whose crimes overshadow even the vile actions of Paul Gadd. I’m pretty sure he never killed tens of thousands of Chechens and levelled Grozny, for example.

  7. If it’s a choice between critical support for an elected leftwing government trying to implement a heavy-handed vision of social justice and cocking it up bigtime, and helping prepare public opinion for Venezuela’s Pinochet, nobody still claiming to be a democrat or a progressive should think twice.

    What does “support” mean in this context? On the basis of this article it seems to mean that even if a left-wing government is cocking things up badly we should point out that any right-wing replacement is likely to be a very nasty affair. It would be much more useful to know how things have gone so badly wrong. I didn’t get much help on that from this piece.

  8. Some really ill-informed comments above.
    What’s lacking in them is any understanding of why Venezuela is facing shortages and inflation (which by the way was also close to 100% in the late 90’s, before Chavez was elected)

    It’s due to a combination of black-marketeering, currency speculation and large-scale fraud.

    Imagine if someone went around food-banks, putting the items donated into a shopping trolley. Then they sold them up the road at a car-boot sale. That’s rather like what’s happening in Venezuela.

    Except it’s happening on a far bigger scale;
    Almost all the companies importing food and essential items pay their suppliers at the official exchange rate, but sell to their wholesalers at the black market rate.
    Many of them are stashing their profits in the hundreds of fake offshore companies that have been set up to launder money and avoid taxes.

    This has nothing to do with “socialist policies”.
    It’s about a systematic attempt by the rich trying to undermine them.

    • There’s no doubt that there is private sector sabotage. However, any socialist government will have to deal with this and we can’t simply shrug our shoulders. If, as they Venezuelan government likes to claim, this is simply due to a counter-revolutionary war, then clearly it is a war which the people are losing. Government policy must change to address these problems. In particular, the black market has arisen, in part, due to controls on exchange rates which have outlived their usefulness (they were only ever intended to be a temporary measure) and regulated food prices which create far too much incentive to enter the black market (especially as unemployment rises). The macroeconomics simply don’t work. Venezuela should be trying to raise workers’ incomes rather than hold prices artificially low.

      There is also the problem of corruption within the state, which I have less detailed knowledge about, which, if unaddressed, makes it very difficult for government policy to be used for positive ends. I’m given to understand that Chavez hadn’t want to start a battle by trying to root it out and hence turned a blind eye. Well, perhaps that was strategically necessary at one time, but it can’t go on any longer.

      • Discussing the macroeconomics is all very well, but there’s a time factor.
        It’s a bit like an airline pilot talking aerodynamics when the plane is in a stall.

        The economic sabotage is part of a systematic attempt to overthrow the government.
        If the right doesn’t get its way using “legal” methods, it will do it in the “traditional” way.
        Brazil was a warning.

  9. Yes fair points but whilst standing by the Left in Latin America I was trying to offer a way forward and perhaps if Maduro puts a rallying call out that Western TNCs are after their oil and the Right want to privatise it, it may galvanise the working class/working people to rally behind the Left.
    You have to offer hope!

    • From what I’ve heard, much of the Venezuelan public doesn’t trust the Right, but (understandably) is fed up with the Maduro. As such, it’s quite possible that Maduro would win a recall referendum. Actually, that might be a good thing for the left. Since Maduro would not longer be able to fully rely on the levers of the state, what with the opposition congress, it might force him to work more with the communes and the like. If the Venezuelan Left does survive this crisis, I think that they will come out stronger and healthier.

  10. Oh and expect to see the Right privatise oil in Brazil etc – stealing the people’s wealth!