It is as if anyone writing about Venezuela must pass through the red channel, for all have something to declare. The competing narratives of Left and Right offer ideologically-tainted accounts, often saying more about any commentator’s domestic politics than Venezuela’s predicament. But even diehard supporters of the country’s charismatic former President Hugo Chávez cannot deny that Venezuela is now facing a humanitarian disaster under his incumbent successor Nicolás Maduro, with a refugee crisis in train, and rampant inflation amid reports that nearly nine in ten of the population have difficulty purchasing food, while three out of four have lost weight – an average of nineteen pounds in 2017 alone.[i]
I determined to find out for myself what has happened to a country that was a beacon of hope for the Left. Thus far, 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 Chávez, who died in 2013, having held the presidency, with one brief interruption, since 1999. Chávez built a political movement out of marginalised sections of that society, 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 Simón Bolívar’s ultimately vain pursuit of Latin American unity.
Naturally, I arrive at an analysis of Venezuela with my own set of assumptions, such as that oil wealth, which depends on little toil or ingenuity, corrupts all but the most ordered of societies (like Norway); and that central to the U.S.’s long-standing Monroe Doctrine – claiming Central and South America as a U.S. ‘sphere’ of influence – has been the development of a comprador class of go-betweens, often working to the detriment of their own societies. I endeavour to avoid doctrinaire assumptions, however, as I am aware how apparently socialist regimes often breed apparatchiks, who plunder the resources of the state and commit human rights abuses. Indeed, Antonio Gramsci, the great Marxist Italian political theorist, recognised that ‘(t)he 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.’[ii]
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 for us. Moreover, notwithstanding the reputation of its health services, we found anecdotal evidence of Cubans being unable to afford basic medicines. Also, major 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 post-colonial states in the same region, all of which share a legacy of genocide against native communities, slave plantations and attendant ecological destruction, along with over two centuries of self-motivated U.S. interference.
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: ‘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.’[iii]
While acknowledging that any commentary arrives via individual bias, we tend to place more trust in the dispassionate analysis of august publications such as The New York Review of Books. After reading its March 8 – 21, 2018 edition, however, my confidence was somewhat shaken. I am referring to the article by Enrique Krauze on Venezuela entitled ‘Hell of a Fiesta’ which appeared on the front cover. Krauze states that between 2013 and 2017 the country’s GDP fell more precipitously than that of the U.S. during the Great Depression, or in Russia after the end of Communism, but he omits to emphasise that in that period the price of oil, overwhelmingly Venezuela’s main export, more than halved in price. Krauze is building a case, and by giving such prominence to his article The New York Review of Books appears to be endorsing his stance.
Krauze points to the serious current humanitarian crisis brought on by government mismanagement – which appears largely indisputable – as well as evidence of repressive measures taken to curb dissent, all of which cohere with Gramsci’s account 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 and yet wasted that income recklessly’, accords no relevance to the legacy of Venezuela’s troubled history, and ignores entirely the progress that had been made in alleviating poverty.
For Krauze Venezuelan history appears to have begun at about the point the historian Francis Fukuyama made the outlandish claim that history had come to an end.[iv] Krauze’s critique recalls the great U.S. writer Gore Vidal’s description of a ‘United States of Amnesia’, where the past is wilfully forgotten. Vidal identified striking similarities in media accounts of ‘democratic’ elections in post-invasion Iraq, and the coverage of events in Vietnam forty years earlier. An editorial in The New York Times in 1967 might have appeared in response to that later conflagration:
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.[v]
There exists a similar suspended reality to U.S. coverage of Venezuela, heightened by the presence of the key strategic asset of oil. Crucial to U.S. success has been the projection of ‘soft’ power, especially of a middle class wedded to U.S. consumer lifestyles. Advocates of U.S.-led globalisation, such as Krauze, trumpet the need for ‘free’ elections, and ignore gross inequalities. If human rights abuses are committed by regimes supportive of the U.S., these tend to be forgotten, or absolved as ‘a son-of-a-bitch but our son-of-a-bitch’.
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[vi]. In an article in 2015 he described Chávez’s attempt to emulate Cuba politically as an ‘an inexcusable choice.’[vii] But considering the dire poverty and inequality in Venezuela when Chávez came to power, describing his socialist policies, which would not be out of place in Norway, as “inexcusable” seems rather an extreme assertion. Krauze conveniently overlooks how by the end of his tenure Chávez had cut poverty in half and reduced extreme poverty by more than seventy percent.[viii]
Little now remains of Venezuela’s indigenous civilisations. As is the case across the Americas, the native population was almost wiped out by a combination of conquest, enslavement and contagious diseases. Perhaps the most stirring cinematic depiction of that period is 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 lakes 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.[ix]
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). His Irish aide-de-camp Daniel Florence O’Leary noted in his memoirs that Bolívar’s ‘imperious and impatient temperament would never tolerate the smallest delay in the execution of an order.’[x] Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1989 novel The General in his Labyrinth 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.’[xi] Ultimately Bolívar 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 to 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 sense of 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.[xii] Nevertheless, Hugo Chávez was subjected to racist taunts over the course of his rule.
Social exclusion and the low education levels of so much of 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 occurred 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.’[xiii] Likewise, 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 Chávez’s government sought to achieve, did not instil 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 usually takes decades, or even centuries, to engender a stable and representative political system. The material improvements Chávez 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.
Looking back, 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 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,[xiv] which served to diminish food sovereignty, 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 oil companies formed an ‘Industrial Security Council’ to coordinate security with the American embassy and its military attachés. Tinker Salas claims that the Pentagon was behind a coup d’etat in 1948.[xv]
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.
In 1976 one of the chief Venezuelan architects of OPEC, Pérez Alfonzo, published a collection of essays entitled Hundiéndonos en el excremento del diablo, ‘We are 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.’[xvi] He 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. companies were 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 endured, with the higher echelon embracing a U.S. 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.[xvii]
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 who distributed a wide range of beauty treatments, and brought a thriving industry in plastic surgery. The ideal of beauty that was promoted was distinctly white European.
In 1999 the country was subjected to a series of mudslides, the Vargas Tragedy, that witnessed the deaths of between fifteen and thirty thousand people. The uncertainty around the number of fatalities is indicative of a lack of concern for those living in shanty towns on the part of the governing elite. Successive governments had permitted houses to be built in unsuitable locations before the ‘natural’ disaster took place.
Thus, the phenomenon of Hugo Chávez 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 had failed to distribute the nation’s resources effectively, a pattern seen throughout the developing world. In these circumstances, for a left-wing populist such as Hugo Chávez to emerge was predictable, if not inevitable, but 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.[xviii] Chávez’s period in office as president between 1999 and 2013 incontrovertibly brought substantial improvements to the lives of the poor. Whatever about the methods employed, or the current crisis under his successor Nicolás Maduro, the achievements of that period cannot be ignored.
A constitution promulgated in 2000 established access to education, housing, health and food as inalienable rights guaranteed by the state. The standing of women and indigenous communities was also raised, while special status was bestowed on the environment, with the state committed to guard against ecological degradation. Such aspirations would not appear out of place in the constitution of a mature democracy.
Chávez’s rule was far from exemplary, however, as corruption became rife, but the continued intransigence of the wealthiest stratum destabilised the country to a point where a coup d’état was launched in 2002. The U.S. government, if not involved, was clearly supportive. Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer claimed that Chávez had brought the coup on himself, while, perhaps more surprisingly, an editorial the day afterwards in The New York Times read, without irony: ‘with yesterday’s removal of President Chávez Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.’[xix] Chávez 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.
According to Tinker Salas, Chávez’s death highlighted the strengths, but also the limits, of ‘an all-powerful hyper-presidentialism expected to resolve the country’s deep-seated problems.’[xx] His successor Nicolás Maduro is not of the same calibre. His survival, having emerged victorious in the May 2018 election, whose validity is contested, depends on the extent to which he can continue to mobilise the support of the poorer sections of society. As regards Venezuela’s long-term possibilities one can only 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.’[xxi] 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 accords with my own dealings with Venezuelans.
In The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (London, Fourth Estate, 2005), Robert Fisk describes the role of the journalist as being to write the first draft of history. This ought to be the case, but the reality is that the market now demands obsessive focus on a self-perpetuating news cycle, which Benedict Anderson characterised as the ‘obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing.’[xxii] The slower pace of the journalist-historian who carefully interrogates sources to develop evidence is increasingly rare. Today, a figure of Fisk’s type, writing independently from a conflict zone, which he knows intimately, for decades, is, if not extinct, then highly anomalous. The new reporters are often unprofessional bystanders who live stream events on camera phones, while the digital medium we increasingly rely on lends itself to distraction and manipulation. Now the ideology of a newspaper or broadcaster often trumps integrity. During his 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, but once the cost-benefit analysis is complete, it could be Venezuela’s turn for the ‘tough love’ of the West.
[i] Centre on Foreign Relations, ‘A Venezuelan Refugee Crisis’, Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 33, February 15th, 2018. https://www.cfr.org/report/venezuelan-refugee-crisis, accessed 14/11/18.
[ii] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Smith, London Lawrence & Wishart, 2003, p.189.
[iii] Miguel Tinker Salas, Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015, p.3.
[iv] Francis Fukayama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, Free Press, 1992.
[v] Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation, p.55, London, Little, Brown, 2006.
[vi] Enrique Krauze, ‘Mexico’s Theology of Oil’, New York Times, October 31st, 2013.
[vii] Enrique Krauze, ‘Rough Seas for Venezuela’, New York Times, February 15th, 2015.
[viii] Mark Weisbrot, ‘Venezuelans Will Vote with Their Wallets’, New York Times, June 20th, 2016.
[ix] Tinker Salas, 2015, pp.18-19.
[x] J. B. Trend, Bolívar and the Independence of Spanish America, New York, Macmillan, 1948, p.225.
[xi] Tinker Salas, 2015, p.39.
[xii] Ibid, p.79.
[xiii] Gramsci, 2003, p.40.
[xiv] Tinker Salas, 2015, p.66.
[xv] Ibid, p.85.
[xvi] Ibid, p.104.
[xvii] Gramsci, 2003, p.306.
[xviii] Tinker Salas, 2015, p.192.
[xix] Editorial, ‘Hugo Chavez Departs’, New York Times, April 13th, 2002.
[xx] Tinker Salas, 2015, p.217
[xxi] Gramsci, 2003, p.296
[xxii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New York, Verso, 2006, p. 34.