Many pieces have been written recently on the situation in Venezuela, including some on the left, that are very critical of the Maduro government (see for example this Jacobin piece that has been widely cited). Interestingly, during the sleepy months of the summer in which I almost didn’t write anything here, this old post on Venezuela has become the most read on the blog (as we approach almost 3 million hits).
Let me first say that I am for democracy and against violence, irrespective of who is behind it. Calls to reduce violence on both sides should be at the top of the international agenda. So, any government constraints on the ability of the people to participate in its own government (some form of democracy) and government repression of manifestations (violence) is wrong. As far as I can tell, the current claims about the lack of democracy in Venezuela are not associated, for the most part, to the election of the president (even though right-wing activists insist, without proof, that Maduro and Chávez have rigged past elections; truth is that they won every time, including the last, even if by a smaller margin), but rather to the Supreme Court reduction of legislative power, and to the new constitutional convention. One could also point out the imprisonment of some opposition leaders, like Leopoldo López, who is under house arrest now. All legitimate concerns, no doubt.
The question then is how much of the push to limits to the power of the legislative assembly dominated by the opposition, and how much of the political repression (including the treatment of opposition leaders, but also the police violence) results from the very violent and anti-democratic push from the opposition itself, that has tried to bring down the government since the very beginning (including a failed coup attempt in 2002). And this is also a valid concern that many (almost all the mainstream media) on the left seem to forget. I can’t honestly respond. But I can provide a perspective, based on my understanding of the Argentine and Brazilian cases that are closer to my experience.
In Argentina, the right-wing neoliberal agenda eventually dislocated the Kirchner governments in the ballot (when Cristina was not a candidate I should add), but it basically needed to lie about its intentions. Macri said he would not devalue the currency (and reduce real wages), that he would not cut the tax on exports, that he would not promote austerity, he also said he would end corruption, and he lied on every single element of his platform. Certainly that undermines democracy in my view. A demagogue that on top has been connected to corruption (for example, his name is in the Panama papers) is not necessarily good for democracy (many on the left here in the US are afraid of what another demagogue with corrupt practices may do to democracy). And there are now at least one ‘desaparecido’ (missing, presumably killed like during the last dictatorship) and at least one famous political prisoner (Milagro Sala). These are significant restrictions on democratic values and certainly indicate some connivance (if not direct participation) with violence. But yet I don’t think Macri is a dictator (and certainly the international media doesn’t think that either).
In Brazil, unlike Argentina, the left won the elections (like in Ecuador, btw). Dilma got a second mandate in 2014, and a fourth electoral victory for the Workers’ Party. The solution there for the right-wingers and their neoliberal agenda was a mediatic-judicial coup (and yes Dilma had accepted some of the economic agenda before the impeachment, in particular austerity; but note that Chávez too tried some neoliberal things before too; see my old piece in Dollars & Sense back in 2005 criticizing the left of center governments in the region). In this case, there have been several people imprisoned as a result of corruption charges, in many cases without other proof than the accusation of self-confessed criminals after plea bargains. Also, there has been a lot of abuse of power, including violence against protestors, and they almost certainly will try to preclude Lula from being a candidate in the next election (he too was condemned because somebody says he owns an apartment, without any formal proof). And yes, I would suggest that the current Brazilian government is not democratic.
So why is this relevant to understand Venezuela you ask. Part of the story is that the opposition in Venezuela says that they need to push the boundaries of the democratic system, because the Chavistas are anti-democratic and would not leave power. The US provides full support to that narrative, suggesting that the Venezuelan government is a threat, and that was true of the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations (there is State policy when it comes to the left in Latin America). That’s why Maduro needs to be recalled, in their view, even though he won the election. At any cost. A coup is acceptable and changing the rules too. That was also repeated ad nauseam in Argentina, and it wasn’t true as it is clear now, since Cristina stepped down and followed democratic principles (also that was kind of the argument used against Allende and many other left of center governments in the region before). In addition, the Brazilian case is important because, when the right-wingers loose, as they did in Brazil, they do push and try to promote a coup (if anything Dilma and the left in Brazil were outmaneuvered, but I don’t think they should not have tried to remain in power, since they did win the election, as did Maduro). In my view what we are seeing is a long slow coup in motion, with the US support (and now Argentina and Brazil too), and the Maduro administration is trying to survive.
So, the stakes are high, and the fall of Maduro may come electorally, later (as in Argentina), or by a coup (as in Brazil, but perhaps more violently), maybe sooner, and should not be a surprise. Note that the constitutional crisis to deal with the contested recall of Maduro, and the taking over of legislative powers by the supreme court do restrict some forms of self-government and are problematic and should be criticized. But I hardly think this means that the government is not democratic. For example, in the US the candidate that won the majority of the vote didn’t win the popular vote, and some may think this is not democratic (and that was the original intent of the electoral college, btw). And yes, the rules were in place already you may suggest. But rules are changed all the time, like the rules for financing of campaigns, or gerrymandering, or the rules for who is eligible to vote. It is quite legitimate to argue that the supreme court has restricted democracy in the US with Citizen United. And several states are trying to restrict the ability of minorities to vote, let alone that voting is done on Tuesdays when a significant number of workers cannot vote. And I could go on.
The point is that the US (which until very recently, 1964 in fact, did not allow a vast majority of the African-American population to vote) is a democracy (some may actually disagree with this), a very imperfect one (and Churchill was right, if he said it, that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others), but one none the less, like Argentina, and in my view Venezuela. Reasonable people may disagree, as much as some people may think that the US is not a democracy too.
Violence is a more complicated issue. There has been violence on both sides of the dispute, even though you would think it’s all the government’s fault if you only get the mainstream media. A lot of the discussion is related to the fact that young, middle class, university students are on the receiving end of some of the violence which is not common in Latin America. There has been less coverage or preoccupation with the regular violence against working class people in Venezuela. But as I said, I think here the government should err on the side of extreme caution and avoid all confrontation.
Note that in the Argentina, Brazil and the US (and in Venezuela too; the recent burning alive of a lower-class man because he was a Chavista is an example of that) there is a lot of violence against minorities and working-class people. More often than not it goes undiscussed in the media. In the US, only recently as a result of the widespread use of smart phones with cameras the systematic killings of black people have shocked the nation. For violence to be controlled institutions have to be strong and capable of punishing the culprits. In the US, clearly institutions still fail, as the many policemen that shot African-American kids go free. Again, I do think the US is democratic, but for many black folks that couldn’t vote until a generation ago, and/or have been imprisoned and deprived of their political rights the idea of American democracy probably rings hollow. In other words, restrictions on democratic processes, which exist in both Argentina and Brazil (and in the US too), and the existence of violence (always condemnable) per se does not necessarily mean that the government is a dictatorship. Anti-democratic tendencies like those of Macri, Trump and Maduro (Temer in Brazil is the representative of a coup and beyond just having anti-democratic tendencies) should be discussed and condemned, as much as of the opposition to their governments when they exist (if you think Dems in the US have no anti-democratic tendencies, check the primaries, the super delegates and so on). And the opposition in Venezuela is also accountable for a fair share of violence and undemocratic practices.
Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of problems with Chávez (and still true with Maduro) and with the left of center governments in the region. The inability to break with the dependence on exports of commodities (and the price being paid now that prices have fallen), the lack of counter cyclical policies at crucial times, the absence of a coherent industrial policy, the integration with China on subordinate way and so on (read my post on Venezuela linked above). In the case of Venezuela, it’s worth quoting at some length this excerpt from Tarver and Fredrick’s history of the country:
the Chávez-Maduro tenure has also been termed a ‘petroleum dictatorship’… The enormous increase in national revenue allowed Chávez and Maduro to pay off Venezuela’s foreign debt and undertake a massive social works program… For most Venezuelans, the petroleum era did not bring with it additional jobs, increased wages, or an improvement in the standard of living. Instead, the oil boom brought about a decline in domestic industry, and increase in imports and inflation.
Seems like a familiar critique of Chavismo, doesn’t it? As it turns out, this is a misquote (oops, my bad). The book actually says the Gómez tenure (president in the first decades of the 20th century), public works instead of social works program, and agriculture instead of industry. The point is (as noted in my post linked above) that these problems are not new. In the case of Venezuela there are two excellent papers (in Portuguese) written by Celso Furtado, in 1957 (a report for ECLAC) and in 1974, showing the problems of development with abundance of foreign reserves (should be a paradox since the normal problem, the constraint, is lack of dollars), which are a must read for those interested in the problems of development.