An open letter to anarchists in Chile and Venezuela, taking a nuanced look at the wave of protests against the Maduro government.
Two weeks ago, Nosotros los Pobres had the good fortune to host a presentation by two members of the Federacion de Estudiantes Libertarias of Chile, with whom we had a very productive exchange of ideas. Soon after that, I saw a statement published by the FEL, commenting on the situation in Venezuela, in which they expressed sympathy for the “Venezuelan people” in their resistance against a coup d’etat. As a member of Nosotros los Pobres, I wanted to share some thoughts about Venezuela and what’s going on there, both now and for the last 15 years, and I hope they will be useful for especifista comrades as well as for concerned and informed people generally.
The first observation, in response to the assertions of my Chilean comrades, is that there isn’t going to be a coup de etat en Venezuela. With what army? The Venezuelan army, part of which was always a stronghold for Chavez, has been thoroughly purged and ideologized—this isn’t the same kind of army as in any other Latin American country. Possibly a sector of the Chavistas themselves would move against Maduro’s faction, but they wouldn’t be doing it in league with Lopez and Machado or the MUD.
Second, the “Bolivarian Revolution” isn’t socialism, even by the standards of Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia. Private property and enthusiastic engagement with world capitalism, even dependence on it, are the hallmarks of the Bolivarian state in practice, whatever its rhetoric. It’s not that Chavismo hasn’t improved the lot of the Venezuelan working class, as it certainly has, according to statistics of poverty, employment, etc. Chavez and his party have even practiced some degree of solidarity with genuinely autonomous movements—grants to the worker owned Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires, for example. But in the final analysis, Chavismo in practice is a populist capitalism (populism having been updated to include alliances with autonomia), akin to, say, Peronismo–which also improved the lives of Argentine workers in its time. Like Peronismo, Chavismo has facilitated the creation of a new elite (la Boliburguesia) and instituted repression and clientelism in labor and other social movements—particularly troublesome is the repression against indigenous peoples whose development plans don’t coincide with the government’s.
All that said, the protests that are going on in Venezuela are made up basically of the radical right and whatever popular sectors they’ve been able to get to follow them—not without the support of US imperialism, which has poured money into student organizations in Venezuela. I can’t cite sources, but it seems entirely plausible that the grave shortages of basic necessities have been created by capitalists who oppose the regime; certainly the comrades from Chile would recognize the historical precedents. Even more important, and I point this out to the comrades from El Libertario, it is certain that the working class is not out in the street. This is a mobilization of the middle classes; proponents of workers’ self organization have no place there.
On the other hand, to say, with the FEL, that we support the “legitimately elected government” of Nicolas Maduro, is an abdication of our responsibility to bear witness to what the state and capitalism are. It’s sad, comrades, but can’t we foretell with near certainty what the fate of the Bolivarian state will be? We’ve seen enough of populist movements with anti-imperialist rhetoric in Latin America that we have an idea of where they’re headed—whether Argentina after Peron, the Mexico of the PRI, Peru after Velasco; or to be more contemporary, Dilma Rousseff in Brasil. Even Leonel Fernandez and company are basically of the same ilk, only Juan Bosch didn’t have enough time in power to leave a lasting impression in the consciousness of the working class. In spite all the differences of ideology and historical conditions, all of those movements left a common legacy in their respective societies—the legacy of oligarchy.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that Hugo Chavez was deeply concerned with social justice and equality (a contention that we by no means take as granted); with Chavez dead, his movement will drift further and further from those ideals, and the “pragmatic” (read, ambitious and opportunistic) elements will gradually rise to the top. Why? Because change isn’t made by well intentioned individuals, change is made by class struggle—and no one with full use of their faculties can claim that the working class is in power in Venezuela. Chavez followed the old path of populist change from above, and that’s why he died leaving an entrenched military, bourgeois and intellectual class firmly in control of Venezuelan society.
All this is not to say that the Venezuelan people won’t attempt to defend the real gains that they’ve made in the last 15 years. As that happens, we will be able to identify trends and currents that we can wholeheartedly support, so that instead of proclaiming our abstract solidarity with the “People of Venezuela” (all the while meaning the chavista movement), we can work materially toward changes in their lives. Opportunities will come for us as the chavistas move to the right, and we will see currents like those we’ve seen in Bolivia, where the movement that put Evo Morales in power has repeatedly resisted being coopted by him (ex. Gasolinazo 2011). Those are the elements we have to identify and ally ourselves with—not that we can expect to find, ready made, a mass movement that identifies with our values. We can, however, in a situation like the one in Venezuela, expect to find sectors of mass movements that can have a significant impact on events, and that are committed in varying degrees to objectives like decisions made democratically at a local level and an economy run by working people.
That’s very different from taking the streets alongside the rightist opposition, as some comrades have suggested doing; and different, as well, from defending the Venezuelan government from a phantom coup de etat. The right are the ones who are on the streets today. But the protests began because of an incident of sexual harassment at a university in Tachira; surely we don’t want to be in the position of having to accept sexual harassment because to protest would be to “materially support imperialism”? Comrades, to be complicit in the support of another populist government that will eventually leave the working class cynical, and disillusioned with all self-activity, isn’t that materially supporting imperialism as well? If a real coup were likely, it might be that we would have to stand shoulder to shoulder with Maduro against something worse; but at the moment, it seems more appropriate to stand to one side, watch and wait to see if a genuine autonomous current begins to develop, one that we can support to defend Venezuela both from imperialism and from oligarchy. If we remain in the shadows of an imperialist movement that despises us, tailing an authoritarian movement that doesn’t share our values, if we fail to offer working people an alternative to the well worn paths that have already failed us, we shouldn’t be surprised when what we get looks very much like what we’ve always gotten.