Lessons from the Crisis in Venezuela

Watching the political developments of the past decade, it seems like one of the major disadvantages that people on the left have is that they are generally less willing to put people at risk than people to their right. We can see this in the debates over the various “Eurexit” movements: for right populists, the sense of reclaiming national sovereignty far outweighs any immediate harm that leaving the Euro causes. On the other hand, even using the threat of a Grexit as a bargaining chip against the Germans was too rich for the blood of Tsipras’ left wing government in Greece, something that the region’s neofascist party wouldn’t have batted an eye at. Forced to decide between placating their German creditors or facing harsher punishments, the new Marxist government caved.

The question is, could things in Greece could have turned out better? Many political observers would stipulate that, for any emerging left-wing movement, political successes won’t necessarily lead to success on subsequent fronts, whether in policy or the economy; and whether we’re talking about the political movements of Sanders, Mélenchon, or Corbyn, et al, there’s always the grim possibility that any political or electoral victory for the left will ultimately be pyrrhic. For those most cynical about the chances of left wing populism, Venezuela’s acute and enduring problems are proof positive that any redistributionist project is doomed from the start.

It would be the simplest thing to look at Venezuela as a cautionary tale of the unavoidable disasters that await any leftist government that opposes neoliberalism. In this light one could almost argue that Greece, in being coerced into accepting crushing reforms by the Germans, was saved from an even worse fate—namely, the inflation, riots, and constitutional crisis that was the inevitable result of allowing socialists to control policy in Venezuela. As superficial as this take is (many of the problems in Venezuela predate Chavismo, and the problems specific to country, such as reliance on oil exports, aren’t necessarily translatable to the problems of other kinds of economies), most of the discussion of the fractured government’s struggles and excesses seems to fail to dig any deeper than that. Outside of government-funded media outlets like TeleSUR, and smaller independent left-wing media, the consensus is with former president Obama that Venezuela is a uniquely corrupt, oppressive country—but compared to what? Mexico? Brazil? Egypt?

What I find bothersome about the standard line isn’t that there’s nothing to critique. There is no doubt that there has been economic mismanagement, particularly with attempts to control the currency, and many problems, such as capital flight and a burgeoning black market, which probably should have been anticipated as a response to the new regulatory burdens. This is the harsh truth that any redistributionist movement needs to take into account, as economic conservatives and libertarians are constantly telling us: one must take into account not just the goals of a policy, but also any unintended consequences. One must also be prepared to face the many powerful actors who want you to fail.

Which brings me to what bothers me about the Washington Consensus, which is how self-justifying it is, given that the rhetoric against Chavismo both coincides with and justifies our constant intrigues against the government. The US has spent millions on this, with multiple coup attempts and continual efforts to undermine the country. This has also aligned us with a violent opposition that has routinely committed terrorist acts against government workers and supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution. The group we are supporting in the country, which represents an (understandably) angry middle class as well as the merchants who have been deliberately withholding goods from the stores—going as far as paying farmworkers not to work—shares at least half of the blame for both the shortages and the political violence that has exploded the country.

Our crocodile tears about what’s happening in Venezuela has little to do with concerns about their constitutional process or political repression, and have almost everything to do with the fact that Chavez nationalized major sectors of the economy, many of them belonging to US interests, and in particular the nation’s oil reserves, which was used to greatly alleviate poverty. Any pretense that we care about democracy in the global south is entirely in bad faith, since we’ve been undermining their institutions for decades. The circular thinking of the Obamas and Merkels of the world would seem to be that any effort taken to sabotage or punish governments and economies that fail to do what European and North American capitalists want them to do is, some how, for their own good. These prescriptions serve a double function of punishing disobedient states and, when the “punishment” succeeds, demonstrating the “self-evident” wisdom of obeying their northern masters.

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