The Observer view on the crisis in Venezuela
Venezuela is a place where romance meets reality. For some on the European left, the self-styled “Bolivarian socialist revolution”, led by the late , became a powerful exemplar of the way things could be in a better-ordered world: bottom-up, inclusive democratic governance led by peasants, workers, trade unionists, indigenous peoples and enlightened intellectuals, guided and inspired by a benign and charismatic comandante.
For others on the doctrinaire right, in and in the global command posts of capitalist orthodoxy, particularly Washington, Chávez’s populism was a demented dream doomed to betray the very people it intended to raise up. The reality, seen from this perspective, was of wasteful governance, economic decline, increasing poverty and an inevitable descent into dictatorship.
The problem is that both viewpoints are right – and wrong. Chávez’s great achievement was the message of hope he brought to the millions of people who, before 1999, were denied a share of Venezuela’s considerable riches or a real say in how their country was run. But Chávez failed, despite creating dozens of misiones to advance grassroots “protagonist” democracy, to institutionalise the redistribution of wealth and power.
Yet while Chávez’s egregious missteps – his quixotic pursuit of an economic strategy long after its failure had become apparent; his growing embrace of authoritarian measures – were his own, they were also in part a reaction to the entrenched resistance and sabotage he encountered from vested interests in Venezuela’s vital oil industry, middle-class business circles, the judiciary and the civil service. Their refusal to accept Chávez’s political legitimacy, despite his repeated electoral victories, was fundamentally anti-democratic – as was the support, licit and illicit, they received from Washington, dramatised by the failed, .
So when the world comes to contemplate what is happening in Venezuela today, an all-round dose of humility is advisable. , Chávez’s choice as presidential successor, lacks the authority and appeal of his mentor. He is currently making a bad situation far worse. After months of street protests, lethal violence and arbitrary arrests, Maduro’s solution – a gerrymandered “constitutional assembly” that bypasses the elected parliament and will allow him sweeping new powers – is no solution at all.
Maduro’s clumsy power grab ignores the fact that, according to opinion polls, a large majority is satisfied with the constitution the way it is now. It does little to address the causes of unrest, which are primarily economic and humanitarian. GDP has contracted more than 20% in three years, inflation is heading towards 1,000%, and citizens face severe shortages of food and medicine. And it raises the prospect of an accelerating, systemic assault on opposition MPs, the justice system and other democratic protections.
Delcy Rodríguez, a former foreign minister and Maduro ally appointed assembly leader on Friday, gave early notice of its radical intentions. “Don’t think we’re going to wait... Tomorrow we start to act. The violent fascists, those who wage economic war on the people, those who wage psychological war, justice is coming for you,” she said. Opposition MP Miguel Pizarro suggested the outcome would be increased authoritarianism and . “This is what the constitutional assembly will bring: more repression,” he said.
Maduro’s government is locking up its critics, allegedly torturing its opponents and acting in other utterly unacceptable ways. There is no justification for such behaviour. But demanding it stop immediately, as we do, should not mean that longer-term, structural problems can be conveniently ignored. Chávez bequeathed a weakened and vulnerable state. The drop in the international oil price, a key economic determinant in Venezuela, is far beyond local control. So, too, is the persistent, pernicious hostility of successive US administrations whose myopic policies mirror those towards Cuba, Iran, Sudan and others.
Who is Donald Trump, that serial underminer of constitutional governance and enemy of free speech, to pass judgment? Who are these holier-than-thou Latin American neighbours, mired like Brazil’s president in sleaze, to threaten expulsion from Mercosur, the regional trade organisation? What purpose is served by further isolating a country that attempted a different way to overcome problems of ?
Venezuela and Chávez led the “pink tide” that swept Latin America in the 1990s. Now that tide has receded. It has been largely replaced by governments and politicians wedded to the neoliberal, fiscally responsible and socially disastrous economic model promoted by Washington. But the presumptuous challenge Venezuela once posed to the US-decreed order has not been forgotten or forgiven. As they ponder the current crisis, western leaders and the political right should consider their share of responsibility. .