Right-wingers often hold Venezuela up as proof that socialism can’t work. But what’s the truth? What led to this point? And what are the real factors affecting this oil-dependent nation?
The 1998 election of Hugo Chávez marked a massive break from the country’s past. It was also the first big victory in Latin America’s ‘Pink Tide‘ of left-leaning governments that opposed capitalist extremism (‘neoliberalism’) and US dominance in the region. And coming during a post-Cold-War period when Western governments wanted ordinary people to believe there was ‘no alternative’ to the existing form of capitalism, it was a shock to the system that the rich and powerful couldn’t allow. Partly because of Chávez’s particularly vocal role, Venezuela has faced hostility from Western governments for over two decades now.
- Oil-dependent economy.
- Persecution of left during Cold War by pro-US governments.
- US hostility since election of Hugo Chávez in 1998.
- Significant progressive achievements, but private sector still dominant.
- Economic crisis in recent years largely due to drop in oil prices and brutal US sanctions.
Repression, then austerity
The main post-colonial context which led to the election of Chávez was of heavy US influence in Venezuelan politics, and of ordinary people struggling for justice within this system. Since the start of commercial oil extraction in 1914, the natural resource was clearly a key factor behind US interest.
After the country’s “first honest election” in 1947 came a far-right military coup. This regime was very friendly with US politicians and corporations. While ‘developing’ the country, it was “extremely repressive” too. It ruled from 1948 to 1958. But the reins of the country then just passed from one elite to another. Because as ‘democracy’ returned, the Punto Fijo Pact laid the groundwork for two corporate parties to dominate for decades. They essentially had a shared programme, and drove the political left underground. This period lasted for 40 years. And the government’s terrorisation of the left reportedly killed around 4,000 people and ‘disappeared’ a thousand more. Many of the worst massacres happened in the 1980s.
As academic George Ciccariello-Maher described in a book on the country’s history during this period, decreasing oil prices led to a long economic crisis in the 1980s. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommended neoliberal austerity efforts, which soon arrived. And this was the final straw. Protests increased, with people from poor urban areas around the country organising to demand change. Then came the Caracazo in 1989, where state forces killed at least 300 protesters in the country’s biggest massacre of the century.
In this environment, two coup attempts took place in 1992 – with army officer Hugo Chávez at their centre. Chávez would then become a figurehead for the country’s resistance to neoliberalism. Indeed, Ciccariello-Maher pointed to poor people’s organisation against marginalisation as being key to Chávez´s eventual electoral success in 1998.
The empire grapples with Chavismo
Chavismo – the movement that got behind President Hugo Chávez electorally – marked a massive break from the Punto Fijo period. And it was a shock to US and elite interests in Venezuela. The new government worked to shift the balance of power towards ordinary people. In particular, it redistributed some of Venezuela’s oil wealth. As a result, poverty fell while key public rights like education, healthcare, and housing got more of the money they deserved.
Opposition to Chávez always had the support of Western politicians and mainstream media outlets, though. In 1998, for example, the US ambassador openly backed Chávez’s opponent; and other ambassadors were no better. In 2002, the US sent a man with experience working to defeat the left during the Cold War. A coup attempt quickly followed. And there was widespread praise for it among Western elites, until it failed. As Ciccariello-Maher has noted, a mass uprising of poor informal workers helped to stop the coup. The informal sector, making up over half of the country’s workforce when Chávez came to power, simply didn’t want to return to the neoliberal era. The failure of the coup only emboldened Chavismo even more.
WikiLeaks revealed in 2015, meanwhile, how US organisations (such as USAID) were actively working to get rid of Venezuela’s president; and other investigations showed the extent of USAID funding for right-wing opposition groups. A 2021 UN report condemning Western sanctions on Venezuela described how they began in 2005 and “have been severely strengthened since 2015… with the most severe ones being imposed by the United States”. The excuse? That Venezuela was somehow a grave threat to the US. It wasn’t, of course; but it did pose a challenge to US corporate interests – which was intolerable.
What has often been sorely lacking in media coverage of Venezuela in recent years is balance. Too many commentators have treated the country’s situation as if it was black and white. But it’s not.
While there are progressive positives, there are also negatives. Chavismo didn’t, for example, diversify an economy where the oil industry was dominant. And despite some exceptions, the private sector was still king. That’s partly why the political project took a big hit when the global price of oil fell (just as Nicolás Maduro replaced Chávez as president). Because Chavismo’s opponents saw a chance to strike back. This meant a mix of international sanctions and protests that sometimes turned violent. These tactics have barely ceased since. US sanctions have been particularly devastating and, as usual, have only helped to make ordinary people’s lives worse.
The context for Western opposition to Chavismo, meanwhile, is clear. On the one hand, there’s the US greed for energy. On the other are Venezuela’s massive reserves of oil and other natural resources; and the fact that Chavismo dared to take some sort of a stand against international corporate interests.
Venezuela as a stick to beat the global left with
Defeating Chavismo would be a big victory for those who argue there’s ‘no alternative’ to modern-day capitalism. And as academic and journalist Peter Bolton wrote in 2019, many commentators claim Venezuela’s problems somehow prove ‘socialism’ doesn’t work. In response, Bolton highlighted important points like:
- Venezuela’s economy not being comparable to other countries’ economies due to its lack of industrialisation and its dependence on oil. This was true long before Chávez, with the country being a fairly typical ‘rentier economy’ (one that gets money while not really producing anything new).
- Lack of economic diversification being true before Chavismo. The resulting instability and economic crises always existed too, along with a dangerous dependence on importing basic goods. None of these are specifically socialist policy.
- Economic war tactics from both home and abroad. Just like the US wanted to make Chile’s economy ‘scream’ to weaken Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, it has used numerous economic means to place a chokehold on Venezuela too. The dominant and pro-opposition business sector, meanwhile, has faced accusations of hoarding products and using other means to weaken the economy.
- Some blame being placed on a controversial monetary policy which is not unique to one school of political thought.
These points aside, many critiques of Venezuela’s government come from the left itself. And some of these voices insist that the ruling party has been too capitalist. There is also criticism of alliances with very unprogressive governments abroad (like in Turkey).
Even Chávez himself had critiques of his party before he died. For example, he lamented that corruption and bureaucracy had pushed it away from many ordinary people. Indeed, numerous activists on the left see communes (rather than the party) as the main revolutionary hope for the future.
The 2019 coup attempt
In January 2019, the US government and Venezuelan elites spearheaded a coup attempt to overthrow Nicolás Maduro following his re-election in 2018. Juan Guaidó, a politician Venezuelans barely knew and whom they hadn’t elected as president, became the face of this campaign. The UK and other US allies, meanwhile, jumped to dismiss the country’s elections and recognise Guaidó as its ‘legitimate president’.
It was clear that the West’s pro-coup arguments were weak. Because in the 2018 election, the divided (and sometimes violent) opposition was free to run for president. But it didn’t present a unity candidate, and many government opponents opted for an election boycott. If this hadn’t happened, the opposition could have won (only about 30% of eligible voters chose Maduro). Indeed, international observers insisted that the election was clean. So it seemed the result was less to do with rigging and more to do with the opposition’s tactics and disunity.
However, the media establishment and other institutions fell in line and boosted the coup plotters and their regime-change efforts.
Manufacturing consent for the coup
Former UN independent expert Alfred de Zayas visited Venezuela as a UN special rapporteur in 2018. And amid US hostility in 2019, he insisted that Washington’s “unilateral coercive measures taken against the people of Venezuela constitute a grave violation of international law”. He also stressed that “most of the mainstream media” was guilty of helping to ‘manufacture consent’ for regime change in Venezuela. And while the UN was encouraging mediation, he added that “the problem is that the opposition wants to come to power by force”.
Renowned media critic Noam Chomsky also chimed in, describing how:
Ever since the beginning of the Chávez years the media have been virtually an open voice for the anti-Chávez opposition
And he asserted that “sanctions have turned a crisis into an humanitarian catastrophe”, calling them “an effort to starve the population into submission”. Indeed, sanctions soon targeted a subsidised food programme which was a lifeline for many Venezuelans.
Fake news and the push for regime change
From the BBC helping to bang the drum for regime change to an absurd fake news piece from Yahoo! Finance suggesting Venezuela was “the cocaine capital of the world”, media elites went all in on the coup. But perhaps one of the most shameful episodes was when media outlets helped to politicise the delivery of aid to the country. The government had received aid for a while, but when it blocked supposed humanitarian support from the US (amid sanctions, threats, and efforts to get Venezuelan soldiers to rebel), there were opposition efforts to cross the border illegally. And while independent journalists present for this stunt exposed its clearly hostile nature, outlets like the New York Times were spreading fake news. Other humanitarian crises around the world, meanwhile, seemed to attract much less mainstream attention.
Amnesty International also faced accusations of bias in its reporting on Venezuela. And the UN didn’t escape criticism, either. As the coup continued, de Zayas said a controversial UN report gave “scarce attention to the central problem– the financial blockade and sanctions that cause so much suffering and death”. This was a charge that would continue.
The coup fails
The choice of Guaidó as the new pro-US figurehead, meanwhile, seemed like real overreach from the coup plotters. Because he was hardly a unifier. He reportedly came from a “far-right” party; and this grouping had rejoiced when fascist Jair Bolsonaro became Brazilian president in 2018. It’s perhaps no surprise that Venezuela’s ruling party, despite suffering a big dip in popularity, was still more popular than Guaidó’s. The national assembly, meanwhile, which Guaidó led and which the opposition won control of in the 2015 elections, was similarly unpopular.
Journalist Greg Palast also highlighted what the coup represented in terms of ethnic politics. He summed it up as essentially:
a furious backlash of the whiter (and wealthier) Venezuelans against their replacement by the larger Mestizo (mixed-race) poor
People of Colour in Venezuela overwhelmingly backed Chavismo, he said. One reason was that Chávez “embraced his own Indigenous and African heritage”. And:
Even though the Mestizo majority suffers today, they will not turn back to the pre-Chavez days of de facto apartheid.
Ongoing racism from opposition sectors was never going to help change that.
Venezuelans are wise to US imperialism
The corruption and elitism of Guaidó’s team, meanwhile, gradually became clearer. And the coup plotters got more and more desperate as time went on. But perhaps the biggest factor stopping the coup in its tracks was that, regardless of people’s politics, the vast majority of Venezuelans wanted an end to US interference in the country. So heavy US involvement meant it would be near impossible to get the bulk of ordinary people onside.
When former colonial power Britain was also pushing the coup, that didn’t help either. The UK’s Conservative government embraced Guaidó wholeheartedly, for example. This saw it controversially withhold Venezuelan gold and set up a secret unit to ‘rebuild’ Venezuela.
Despite Chavismo’s errors, the ruling party also remains the most popular (albeit much less than it was before the drop in oil prices). Trade unions, meanwhile, continue to stand by the government – something no one should ignore.
The massive human cost of Western hostility
Early on in 2019, one report from US economists found that, from 2017 to 2018, US sanctions had been responsible for around 40,000 extra deaths in Venezuela. One of the authors, Mark Weisbrot, stressed that:
These sanctions don’t really target the government. What they do is they target the people. And it’s not really collateral damage… the whole purpose of this… is to increase this suffering until there’s… rebellion
Alfred de Zayas, meanwhile, suggested in early 2020 that US sanctions had killed over 100,000 people.
Millions of Venezuelans have reportedly fled from the worsening economic situation in recent years. Some people have left the country as refugees, and others on work visas. In 2020, the UN considered this wave of emigration to be one of the world’s most serious. And in 2021, a UN report opposed Western sanctions, stressing that they had “exacerbated pre-existing economic situations and have dramatically affected the whole population of Venezuela, especially but not only those in extreme poverty, women, children, medical workers, people with disabilities or life-threatening or chronic diseases, and the indigenous populations”.
Current US president Joe Biden may be slightly more open to dialogue than Donald Trump. But the fact remains that Biden has regularly referred to Nicolás Maduro as a “tyrant”, a thug, and a “dictator“. He also got fully behind the coup attempt to anoint Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader. And he has called for ‘stronger sanctions’. So a friendly US-Venezuela relationship seems unlikely.
For now, the Guaidó coup attempt has died down. And it was ordinary people’s resilience during intense hardship that helped to see off the latest bout of US meddling.
The economic crisis remains, though. So opposition to Western sanctions and propaganda must continue. As must support for the Venezuelan people, who have suffered immensely from this aggression.
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Note: The opinions expressed in the lyrics of the songs above do not necessarily represent the principles of Phoenix Media Co-operative.
Lead contributor Ed Sykes
Main article image via Ktrinko