For the first time since 1998, conservatives won a majority of the Venezuelan legislature. This is a rebuke to the policies of Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro. It has also led to a lot of hand-wringing in the United States about the state of the Latin American left. First, Greg Grandin at The Nation:
Coming on the heels of the recent victory of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and Dilma’s impending impeachment in Brazil, and low polls for Michelle Bachelet in Chile, the Latin American left—which, since Chávez’s first election in 1998, has witnessed a remarkable run—is in serious trouble. It is too early to know if we are moving into a new era of a restored right, one which uses the now widely accepted language of social democracy to undermine social democracy. (Ernesto Semán has a sharp analysis on what Macri’s victory might mean over at NACLA.)
There’s much at stake, for, in addition to having presided over a return of social-democratic redistribution, the South American left over the last decade and a half created an effective counterbalance to the United States, on issues such as trade, debt, rendition, torture, and war. Macri has already signaled that he would move away from trying to create an integrated regional market anchored by Brazil and Venezuela (that could negotiate better terms regarding the United States) and lock Argentina into the Washington-brokered Trans-Pacific Partnership.
As the Latin American left likes to say, the conjuncture is definitely fluid.
Steve Ellner at Jacobin uses the opportunity to defend Chávez’s legacy and blame the Venezuelan opposition for forcing him to moderate his stances and create policies that appeal to the poor directly but have long-term economic consequences:
Throughout their administrations, Chávez and Maduro have prioritized social policy in favor of the poor and workers over economic objectives such as industrial development. Measures include highly reduced prices — or, in some cases, no charge — for commodities ranging from public housing to gasoline, books, electrical appliances, and laptops for students.
In addition, following the business-promoted general strike that threatened to trigger uncontrollable inflation, the government began to regulate prices for basic commodities and, in effect, subsidized imports. In October, Maduro announced that his government would set a price ceiling for all products.
The system of artificially low prices favors the underprivileged but also has a downside — namely the problem of scarcity, which over the last several years has reached an extreme. Scarce goods on the black market sell for two or three times more than the regulated price.
Once these and other popular policies were put in place, it was hard for the government to switch course when they ran into trouble. Subsidized prices create expectations among both the underprivileged and the middle class. The most obvious example is gasoline at virtual giveaway prices, a policy that some on the Left defend. The internal consumption of over 750,000 barrels per day represents about 25 percent of national production, thus depriving the nation of much-needed revenue.
Ultimately, the moderation of many Chavista policies and some of their negative consequences have to be understood in the context of the aggressive acts of the Venezuelan opposition, and the contradictions of populism. But the fact that they have been on the whole successful has kept the government in power. The guarimba campaign to overthrow the government in 2014 failed because it did not spread from middle class areas to the barrios. The refusal of the Venezuelan poor to join the protests was a reflection of the political success of the government’s social programs.
However, in the void left by Maduro’s inaction, grassroots activists have turned inwards and begun to seek concrete solutions. With the help of key ministries that continue to grant money to social movements, these activists have become the motor for a renaissance of small-scale production in this oil-dependent nation. In Guatire, a working-class suburb of the capital city of Caracas, Alejandro Baiz, a young filmmaker, and a group of volunteers have received funding from the Communes and Housing Ministries to remake an abandoned lot into a center of social production called Territorio Caribe. The space now boasts greenhouses where local children learn about urban farming, a community news station and an educational space that offers classes on everything from carpentry to natural childbirth.
The Communes Ministry supports Venezuelans in creating autonomous socialist collectives that emphasize self-sufficiency and self-governance, in accordance with Chávez’s dream of gradually replacing the bourgeois state with a communal state. Thousands of these collectives are registered across the country, with the more prolific examples focusing on permaculture and participatory democracy. “We’re not trying to change the world, only create an alternative from our immediate possibilities,” Baiz explains.
If bachaqueros are the foot soldiers of the economic war, Alejandro and his crew of around 70 volunteers meet them on the proverbial battlefield. By producing homemade soaps, deodorants and shampoos, the people at Territorio Caribe are bringing their communities products most commonly monopolized by bachaqueros. By selling arepa flour made from yucca, plantain and taro, they are providing a local alternative to the Harina P.A.N. corn flour produced monopolistically by Empresas Polar, Venezuela’s largest private corporation.
Further from the city lights, Gabriel Garcia, 55, keeps busy organizing against genetically modified seeds with help from the Communes Ministry. Born and raised on the fertile land of Lara State, Gabriel is behind Venezuela’s decade-old National Campesino Seed Day and the trailblazing International Seed Forum in 2012 to protect organic seeds native to the Americas. But it’s not all talking,” promises Gabriel. “We put it in practice, we grow our own food out back. We keep seed banks and make sure they are available to growers.” Even with the extra labor involved in organic farming, Gabriel says, all-natural and communally grown produce can be even cheaper than conventional counterparts when the high cost of imported agrochemicals and extensive distribution chains are factored in. Lara has more communes than any other state and a long tradition of subsistence farming. That has, to some extent, protected the region from food scarcity. With government support, the local communes are currently building defenses against speculation by seeking ways to distribute goods in the state capital of Barquisimeto without intermediaries. “We’ve seen more clearly than anyone that the best way to combat the economic war is by producing, by growing, wherever there is free space,” Gabriel insists.
A few thoughts here.
First, there’s little question that Chávez was doing a pretty bad job of leading the nation toward the end and Máduro is no better. They combined unworkable policies with a total reliance upon oil, placing the revolution completely at the whim of the international commodities market. Now, I’m not saying that economic diversification is easy, but no revolution based on a sole product is going to survive forever. Combining that with out of control corruption, a huge spike in crime rates, a massive black market, and an inability to provide basic social services and I’d say that’s a failed government. I’ve long criticized Chávez for being more concerned with sticking his thumb in America’s eye than picking up the trash on Caracas streets. The latter is real socialism, the former may be part of real socialism but it’s just posturing for the most part.
All that said, the Venezuelan opposition is horrible. Much of the Latin American right really longs for the Cold War when the CIA would just come in and overthrow Chavez or Morales or Correa and the oligarchs could retain power at the expense of the poor. There’s little reason to believe that anything the Venezuelan right is going to offer will end in a positive outcome for the Venezuelan people. Eliminating the corruption within the Máduro government by getting rid of it might sound good but if it’s to be replaced by a new government that is just going to rob the poor blind, I don’t see much benefit.
I’m also not all that sympathetic to arguments that this is a major crisis for the Latin American left. It’s not the 1980s and outside of Venezuela, South American nations are pretty stable with functioning democracies. Even in Venezuela, the voting system is fair and democratic and reflecting the actual views of the people at least as well as in the United States where 25 people are attempting to buy the 2016 elections. If Bachelet loses in Chile, it’s not the return of Pinochet. What’s happening in the other nations is that functioning two-party states are developing. That doesn’t mean that Argentine and Chilean conservatives are good people–again, many of them long for CIA coups–but it does mean that they are stable. It means that the Latin American left can compete for elections and win them fairly, but it also means they have to rule effectively. That’s harder in a nation like Venezuela than some others but I don’t think we do South America a service by thinking about all of this solely through the terms of Cold War-era Latin America.
Finally, there’s no good reason not to repost the legendary Venezuelan state animation created when Chávez died because it’s awesome in its weirdness: