Explaining Venezuela – Alejandro Velasco on The Dig

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Venezuela’s gone south, and finding nuanced explanations why is hard.

The media’s obviously unsubtly propagandising in favour of elite Western interests – painting Maduro as a savage dictator, and cheerleading a coup-prone, US-funded opposition movement led by embittered members of the pre-Chavez Establishment.

Many leftists, on the other hand, are rushing to blame the deepening crisis on bad old-fashioned American imperialism – echoing arguments made by the Maduro government itself.

There’s no question – the US has been blatantly trying to destabilise Venezuela for over a decade. It wants rid of the Chavez project, and unrestricted access to the country’s 297 billion barrel’s worth of oil.

But the country’s current turmoil can’t just be laid at Uncle Sam’s door. The truth is far more complicated than that – and the best analysis I’ve been able to find so far came from academic Alejandro Velasco, interviewed by Daniel Denvir on Jacobin’s excellent The Dig podcast (you can listen to it here).

The following is a rough summary of their discussion.

What’s happening now

The situation in Venezuela is very bad. An oil price slump has led to chronic food shortages, which in turn has sparked off protest.

The country’s long-standing right-wing opposition has been emboldened – and sections of the population that once supported the government are turning against it as living conditions deteriorate.

In response, the state is turning increasingly oppressive. It’s not distinguishing between right-wing protestors with an explicitly anti-government agenda and ordinary Venezuelans with legitimate grievances – and with police resources diverted into controlling unrest, crime is skyrocketing.

All in all, Venezuela looks like it’s spiralling out of control – and as this juncture, it’s hard to see how and when the current crisis is going to end.

21st Century Socialism and its shortcomings

Venezuela is a petrostate. It’s got gargantuan oil reserves, and is extremely reliant on its ability to sell that oil abroad in exchange for basic goods. When oil prices are high, its economy thrives. When they slump, it tanks.

But in the pre-Chavez neoliberal era, a thriving economy rarely translated into better living standards for the mass of the population.

Chavez’s rise came partly as a reaction to that. He spoke to people who felt shut out of the oil booms when they came – predominantly the slum-dwelling urban poor.

But it’s often forgotten that Chavez didn’t start out as a strident left-winger. After leading and being jailed for an unsuccessful coup attempt in the early ‘90s, he was eventually elected President in 1999, on a vague but populist, anti-imperialist platform.

It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, however, that he began talking about ‘socialism’.

The preceding decade had seen a dramatic upsurge in grassroots organising in Venezuela.

Ordinary people had grown increasingly assertive, and started clubbing together to demand more popular participation in how Venezuela was governed – and with oil prices soaring, Chavez declared that his revolution was now a socialist one.

He ploughed oil revenues into social missions that brought health care, education and subsidised food to thousands of the country’s poorest citizens.

In under a decade, poverty rates were cut by 20%; 1.5m people were taught to read; 18m people got free healthcare; and higher education was opened up to the poor and the country’s indigenous population.

But Chavez’s ultimate aim was more radical. He envisaged a country run by hundreds of self-managing community councils, that could eventually replace the capitalist state by rendering it redundant.

Alas, that hasn’t quite materialised.

The government’s attempts at participatory socialism have created an increasingly corrupt bureaucratic elite rather than radical popular democracy.

And now, the country has fallen afoul of the very thing that helped propel Chavez to power in the first place – the erratic nature of the oil economy.

Particularly after its socialist turn in the mid-2000s, the Chavez government tried – with significant successes – to level the inequalities that sprang out of Venezuela’s neoliberal era.

But it did so within the parameters of the capitalist oil economy. If anything, Chavez deepened Venezuela’s reliance on oil.

Rhetorically, he emphasised the need for a new, socialist, anti-consumerist culture. In reality, he pursued a vision of prosperity that saw rising oil revenues equal rising living standards, and rising living standards equal ever-increasing material consumption.

Now, the oil slump has seen that prosperity model grind to a halt, galvanising the country’s right-wing opposition – and throwing harsh light on the increasingly dysfunctional Venezuelan state, as corrupt army officers siphon off precious food supplies to flog at black market prices, and Chavez’s successor Maduro struggles to contain snowballing unrest.

Could it have ended any differently?

Denvir asks Velasco whether he thinks the current crisis could’ve been avoided if Chavez had diversified Venezuela’s economy, lessening its dependency on oil.

But Velasco argues diversification was never a viable option in Venezuela – it’s too small, he suggests, to ever build up an export economy about more than just oil.

He thinks Chavez should’ve managed the oil economy more sensibly instead, implementing measures like a Norway-style oil fund that could build up when prices were high, and only be touched when they slumped.

I think he’s probably right about that one – the Chavistas could’ve used Venezuela’s oil wealth more cleverly.

But I disagree with the notion that Venezuela under Chavez could never have freed itself from its dependency on oil.

Yes, it might well be too small to ever be a great exporting nation – but I think that every country on the planet is going to have to turn away from globalised, export-focused economics in the coming decades if we’re going to avoid social and ecological collapse.

International trade, frequently irrational – in 1999, Britain sold 111m litres of milk and 47m kilos of butter abroad, and bought in 173m litres of milk and 49 kilos of butter – pumps colossal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

And as climate change worsens, temperatures rise and freak weather events become more and more common, the trading arrangements we’ve come to rely on to supply the basics are likely to be disrupted.

Personally, I believe that not just every country, or every region of a country, or every state or county, but every human community on earth needs to become as self-sufficient as possible.

I think, first off, that the rhetorical Chavez was right – we need a new, socialist, anti-materialistic culture that rejects consumerism and the production and sale of useless goods.

And I think that useful goods – food, clothes, necessary machinery and the like – need to be produced as closely as possible to the place they’re ultimately going to be consumed.

A country like Venezuela could’ve used the proceeds of the oil boom to build up much-needed resilience – bringing in the materials and the expertise required to allow it to become almost entirely self-sufficient in the long term (ideally, in less fortunate countries, this process would be facilitated by a vast transfer of wealth and resources from the rich world to the underdeveloped world).

But all of this obviously would’ve involved ripping up everything we’ve been taught by a century-plus of mainstream economics – and, as such, was never a realistic prospect in Venezuela. It was very possible – it was just never probable.

My hope is that it’s a model other radical governments might follow in future.

Last words on Venezuela

Leaving hypotheticals behind – I think Chavismo was (from its mid-period onwards, at least) a project with genuine socialist intentions, but probably doomed before it began because of its unwillingness or inability to break away from the oil economy.

It’s achieved some sensational things. We need radical Venezuelan-style poverty eradication, healthcare and education programmes in every society on earth.

Chavez’s ultimate goal, replacing the capitalist state with a vast network of self-managing community councils, is exactly the sort of radical democratic localism the species needs to survive in coming centuries.

But what we’re left with in the here and now is an increasingly corrupt, increasingly authoritarian government indiscriminately cracking down on both hard-right coup-mongerers and hungry, desperate civilians.

I obviously hope the country can pull itself out of its nosedive, and at least get back to providing something more equitable and humane than neoliberalism allows elsewhere – but with the most powerful forces on the planet doing their utmost to make it fail, I’m not overly optimistic.

Listen to Denvir and Velasco’s conversation here.

You can also support Jacobin’s The Dig podcast on Patreon.