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Venezuela Sinks in the ‘Excrement of the Devil’

It seems as if anyone writing about Venezuela must pass through the red channel, for all have something to declare. The competing narratives from the left and right offer ideologically-tainted accounts, often saying more about their own domestic politics than Venezuela’s predicament.

I have no particular ax to grind, having never visited the country. My main interaction with Venezuelans has been as a teacher to those wealthy enough to study in private colleges in the U.K.. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I cannot think of any one of them who displayed affection for the country’s charismatic former President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013.

Chavez built a political movement out of marginalised sections of the population, which sought to use the country’s fabulous oil wealth to develop a socialist state. With Cuba’s Fidel Castro as a father figure, he reprised his countryman Simon Bolivar’s ultimately vain pursuit of Latin American unity.

I arrive nonetheless with a priori assumptions about Venezuela, such as that oil wealth, which essentially requires no labour, corrupts all but the most ordered of societies (Norway); and that central to the U.S.’s long-standing Monroe Doctrine – asserting that Central and South America to be a sphere under their influence – has led to the development of a comprador class of go-betweens, which often work to the detriment of their own societies.

I endeavour to avoid doctrinaire assumptions, however, as I am aware how apparently socialist regimes often develop bureaucracies of apparatchiks, who plunder the resources of the state, and commit human rights abuses. Antonio Gramsci the Marxist Italian political theorist recognised that ‘The prevalence of the bureaucratic in the State indicates that the leading group is saturated, that it is turning into a narrow clique which tends to perpetuate its selfish privileges by controlling or even stifling the birth of oppositional forces.’

A trip to Cuba in my twenties disabused me of the notion that Caribbean Socialism brought any kind of utopia. The level of prostitution at the time was staggering: as European males we were accosted by women who were clearly desperate for money, rather than us.

Caribbean socialism brought no utopia. Cuba in 2001, ©Frank Armstrong

Moreover, notwithstanding the reputation of its health services, we were offered anecdotal evidence that Cubans could not afford basic medicines. Also, most of the cities were in an advanced state of dilapidation, which can be charming for tourists, but less enchanting in a tropical storm. Much of that poverty can be attributed to the American embargo at the time, but equally Uncle Sam could be used as an excuse for petty corruption and repression.

Nonetheless, what Cuba has achieved in terms of life expectancy, and a low-input agriculture, compares favourably with most of the failing states in the same region; all of whom share a legacy of genocide against native communities, slave plantations and attendant ecological destruction; along with over two centuries of U.S. interference in pursuit of its interests.

Venezuela shares much of this inheritance with its Caribbean neighbours, but its history since the early twentieth century bears the influence of another salient feature: oil. Venezuela has greater reserves even than Saudia Arabia, making it ripe for investment, and outside interference.

Oil exerts a profound effect on the entire social fabric. According to Miguel Tinker Salas in Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2015): ‘Like a lubricant coating the various parts of an internal combustion engine, oil literally permeates every aspect of Venezuelan society in ways that are not apparent to an outsider’.

II

Any commentary arrives through a prism, a varied set of preconceptions, but we tend to extend more trust to literary publications such as The New York Review of Books than a daily newspaper owned by a press baron. After reading its March 8 – 21 edition, however, my confidence is somewhat shaken. I am referring to the article by Enrique Krauze on Venezuela entitled ‘Hell of a Fiesta’ which appeared on the front cover of that edition.

Krauze is a Mexican public intellectual, and apparently a liberal, a term that means very little any more. He has advocated privatising the extraction of oil in his home country, for reasons of efficiency, and in pursuit of shale oil and gas.

Previously he described Chavez’s attempt to emulate Cuba politically as an ‘an inexcusable choice’. But considering the dire poverty and inequality in Venezuela when Chavez came to power, describing his socialist policies, which would not be out of place in Norway, as “inexcusable” seems an extreme assertion. Krauze overlooks how after coming to power Chavez cut poverty in half and reduced extreme poverty by more than seventy percent.

Krauze also states that between the 2013 and 2017 the country’s GDP fell more precipitously than that of the US during the Great Depression or Russia after the end of Communism, but he omits to emphasise that between in that time the price of oil, overwhelmingly Venezuela’s main export commodity, more than halved in price. Krauze is building a case, and by giving such prominence to the article The New York Review of Books appears to be endorsing his stance.

Krauze details a serious current humanitarian crisis brought on by government mismanagement – much of which appears indisputable – as well as evidence of repressive measures taken to curb dissent, all of which cohere with Gramsci’s critique of a bureaucratic state at saturation point. But to say: ‘The full responsibility lies with the Chávez and Maduro regime … which for fifteen years had a windfall of petroleum resources comparable only to those of the major Middle Eastern producers yet wasted that income recklessly’, accords no relevance to the legacies of Venezuela’s often troubling history, or the work that was done in alleviating poverty.

For Krauze Venezuelan history appears to have begun at precisely the point Francis Fukuyama said human history had ended. We are operating in the ‘United States of Amnesia’, where the past is willfully forgotten. That term was coined by Gore Vidal, who identified in his memoir Point to Point Navigation (Little Brown, London, 2006) striking similarities in the media accounts of ‘democratic’ elections in post-invasion Iraq and the coverage of events in Vietnam forty years earlier, when an editorial in The New York Times from 1967 read:

U.S. encouraged by Vietnam vote: Officials cite 83 percent turnout despite Vietcong terror… A successful election has long been seen as the keystone to President Johnson’s policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam.

There exists a similar suspended reality to U.S. coverage of Venezuela, heightened by the presence of the key strategic asset of oil. Key to U.S. policy has been the projection of ‘soft’ power, especially where a bourgeoisie becomes wedded to U.S. lifestyles. Advocates of U.S.-led globalisation, such as Krauze, trumpet the need for ‘free’ elections, and ignore gross inequalities. Should widespread human rights abuses be committed by regimes supportive of the U.S. these tend to be covered up, with the consolation: ‘he’s a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch’.

III

Little remains of Venezuela’s indigenous civilisations. As is the case across the Americas, the native population was all but wiped out by a combination of conquest, enslavement and contagious diseases. Perhaps the most stirring cinematic depiction of that period comes from Werner’s Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre Wrath of God, starring Klaus Kinsky as a deranged conquistador in search of El Dorado – a land of gold that has given way to ‘Oil Dorado’.

The origin of the name of the country is subject to controversy. The best indication is that the explorer Amerigo Vespucci (whose own name survives in two continents) was reminded of Venice by the thatched palm-covered residences erected on wooden poles over the lake by the native Arawak people. Later the humanitarian writer Barolomé de las Casas is credited with using the term ‘little Venice’ on a map he sketched after visiting the area. By 1528, the name ‘Venezuela’ had appeared on another map used by the Spanish Crown.

With the native population all but wiped out, creole settlers chose to import African slaves to work on their plantations, especially chocolate and coffee. Slavery was carried over into a state, which first declared independence in 1811, with lasting repercussions.

Venezuela’s most famous revolutionary son was El Libertador, Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) whose Irish aide-de-camp noted in his memoirs that his ‘imperious and impatient temperament would never tolerate the smallest delay in the execution of an order’. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel The General in his Labyrinth (1989) paints a picture of an exiled leader driven to the edge of reason by the enormity of his ambition to reform the post-colonial society he inhabited.

According to Tinker Salas: ‘the wars of independence may have resulted in a rupture with Spain, but they did not produce a social revolution that altered pre-existing class relations or redistributed wealth.’ Ultimately Bolivar would despair: ‘I blush to say this: independence is the only benefit we have acquired, to the detriment of all the rest’, but his legacy of attempting to bring unity to the region remains an intoxicating elixir for his heirs.

The ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery was not abolished in Venezuela until 1854, and leaves an enduring legacy, as elsewhere, of exclusion, racism and entitlement among elites. In 1918 ‘non-white’ immigration was prohibited, while Europeans continued to be encouraged to settle in the country.

There were no segregation laws, however, and miscegenation was common. In 1944 the poet Andrés Eloy Blanco coined the term café con leche to describe the Venezuelan racial makeup. Nevertheless, Hugo Chavez was subjected to racist taunts over the course of his rule.

Social exclusion and the low education levels of so much the population meant democracy in Venezuela could not take root throughout most of the twentieth century. The first peaceful handover of power by one regime to another only arrived in the 1960s.

Gramsci believed that: ‘democracy by definition cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can be skilled, it must mean that every citizen can ‘govern’ and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this.’ Any understanding of Venezuelan democratisation must recognise that the low level of development in the country has created disorders that ‘free’ elections do little to cure. What is more, mere technical education is insufficient to incubate the capacity of any Venezuelan citizen, in theory, to govern.

After tapping into oil wealth Norwegians drew on the austere historical experience of a homogenous society on the polar frontier of human habitation, and a ‘Protestant’ work ethic including a strong educational tradition, to develop an egalitarian democracy. Norwegians believed themselves to be the equal of one another, permitting, abstractly at least, any Norwegian to govern another.

Venezuela, on the other hand, after the discovery of oil was saddled with hierarchies of wealth and race, and a tropical climate, which makes labour challenging. Equipping the poor with technical skills, as Chavez’s government sought, did not provide a capacity to govern. Moreover, mutual trust evaporated in the class war which at times he appeared to foment.

True democratisation is a process that often take decades or even centuries to develop. The material improvements Chavez brought to the lives of the poor could only be a precursor to the real adjustments, in education in particular, that any society requires in order to develop harmonious governance.

IV

The exploitation of oil, which began in earnest in the 1920s, created a stratum of society susceptible to the corruption associated with unearned wealth, allowing US oil companies largely to get along with the job of extracting the black gold. The windfall led to the country becoming a net food importer by the 1930s, which served to diminish food sovereignty that is reflected in the high prices of staples today.

Especially after World War II, radical including Communist ideas filtered through to the Venezuelan people, leading to periodic outbreaks of violence. In response the oil companies formed an ‘Industrial Security Council’ to coordinate security with the American embassy and its military attaches. Tinker Salas claims that the Pentagon was behind a coup d’etat in 1948.

Awareness was growing among the wider populace of the incredible wealth the country possessed, and that this was not being devoted to the betterment of the population at large. On the international front, Venezuela was one of the founding members of OPEC in 1960, and domestically pressure mounted on the government to nationalise reserves.

U.S. attitudes to the country are epitomised by a Newsweek cover from 1964 entitled ‘The Promise and the Threat’, featuring an image of President Rául Leoni with Fidel Castro looming behind him (below).

The Promise and The Threat, Newsweek cover, 1964.

In 1976 one of the chief Venezuelan architects of OPEC Pérez Alfonzo published a collection of essays entitled Hundiéndonos en el excremento del diablo, ‘Sinking in the Excrement of the Devil’ which concluded that after nationalisation ‘el petróleo es nuestro, lo demás lo importamos’ ‘the oil is ours, everything else we import’. That revealed an intuitive understanding of what economists call ‘the natural curse’, or ‘the paradox of plenty’, which diminishes self-reliance and entrepreneurship.

That same year the government finally nationalised the industry. The U.S. was not entirely displeased, however, as the law allowed for contracts with foreign firms. Venezuela had become a classic rentier state which derived all or a substantial portion of its national revenues from the ‘rent’ of indigenous resources to external clients.

A two-tier society continued with much of the higher echelon succumbing to the lure of US consumer culture. A particular feature of this was a veneration of female beauty, indicative of a society where women are treated as ‘luxury mammals’, to use Gramsci’s description of the wives and daughters of American industrialists between the wars.

A proliferation in beauty pageants yielded seven Miss Universe and six Miss World crowns on the international stage, and transformed an ideal of female beauty into a national obsession. This stimulated demand for cosmetic products, exploited by organisers of the pageants that distributed a wide range of beauty treatments, and a thriving industry in plastic surgery. The ideal of beauty that was promoted was distinctly white European.

In 1989 the country was subjected to a series of mudslides, the Vargas Tragedy, that led to the deaths of between fifteen and thirty thousand people. The uncertainty around this number is indicative of the lack of concern for those living in shanty towns on the edge of survival. Successive governments had allowed houses to be built in unsuitable locations before the ‘natural’ disaster took place.

V

The phenomenon of Hugo Chavez cannot be abstracted from Venezuelan history as Krautze in his New York Review article suggests. As a post-colonial society, Venezuela brought a host of problems into the twentieth century, especially the social exclusion of the bulk of the population and a toxicity in ‘race’ relations. The challenge of development in a tropical environment also cannot be discounted.

Over decades of oil wealth, Venezuelan elites failed to distribute effectively the nation’s resources, a pattern seen throughout the developing world. In these circumstances, for a populist such as Hugo Chavez to emerge was entirely predictable, if not inevitable, and many of his aspirations can be lauded. During 2002 poverty gripped 49.6% of the population, with 32% destitute. This had fallen to 27.8% and 10.7% respectively, by 2010.

Chavez’s period in office between 1999 and 2013 incontrovertibly brought substantial improvements to the lives of the poor. Whatever about the methodologies employed, or the current crisis under Nicolás Maduro, the achievements of that period cannot be ignored.

The constitution of 2000 established access to education, housing, health, and food as inalienable rights guaranteed by the state. The status of women and indigenous communities was also raised, while the environment received special status, and the state committed to guard against ecological degradation. Such aspirations would not appear out of place in the constitution of a mature democracy.

Clearly all was not right in Venezuela during his rule, however, as inefficiencies became rife, but the continued intransigence of the wealthiest stratum destabilised the country to a point where a coup d’etat was launched in 2002. The US government, if not involved, was clearly supportive. Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer claimed that Chavez had brought the coup on himself, while an editorial in The New York Times read, somewhat ironically: ‘with yesterday’s removal of President Chavez Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be-dictator.’

Chavez survived the coup after a popular uprising, which underlined his appeal among the most marginalised in that society. Tinker Salas discounts the view that this was based purely on client-patron relations, and suggests that national pride, left-wing policies, his African heritage and a general loss of faith in the political process all played their part.

*******

In The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (Harper Collins, 2006) Robert Fisk describes the role of the journalist as being to write the first draft of history. This should be the case, but the market now generally demands a singular focus on the requirements of the news cycle. The slower pace of the journalist-historian who interrogates his sources, and has time to reflect on the evidence, is increasingly rare.

Today, a journalist of the type as Fisk, living independently in a conflict zone for decades, is, if not extinct, then anomalous. The new reporters are often unprofessional bystanders who record events on their phones, while the digital medium we increasingly rely on lends itself to distraction and manipulation.

During his own long career, Fisk witnessed the extent to which news could be manipulated to justify military invasions: the “United States of Amnesia” at work. The justification for any humanitarian intervention remains elusive as international institutions fragment. Once the cost-benefit analysis is complete, it could be Venezuela’s turn for the ‘tough love’ of the West.

According to Tinker Salas, Chavez’s death highlighted the strengths, but also the limits, of an all-powerful hyper-presidentialism expected to resolve the country’s deep-seated problems. His successor Nicolás Maduro is not of the same calibre. His survival, beginning with the May election, whose validity is contested, seems sure to rely on the extent to which he can mobilise the support of the poorer sections of society.

As regards Venezuela’s long-term possibilities one must hope that more is done to heal a corrosive addiction to oil revenue – “the excrement of the devil” –  which has bred corruption and complacency since its discovery. Venezuelans would do well to learn from how Cuba survived oil shortages at the end of the Cold War, especially when its agriculture was denied access to petro-chemicals.

Moreover, the status of Venezuelan women as ‘luxury mammals’, dependent on beauty for their status, is a clear pathology. As Gramsci points out: ‘Until women can attain not only a genuine independence in relation to men but also a new way of conceiving themselves and their role in sexual relations, the sexual question will remain full of unhealthy characteristics’.

Finally, coverage of the country has often tended to highlight poverty and violence, but Venezuelans often have a happier disposition than is evident among people living in stable democracies. This point is affirmed in successive polls, and reflects my own dealings with Venezuelans.

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