Venezuela: Not Socialism, Useless Populism. No Revolución, Just Violence

Venezuela: Not Socialism, Useless Populism. No Revolución, Just Violence
Joshua Tartakovsky, 28 January 2016

In December 2015, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro suffered a humiliating defeat as his ruling party, PSUV, got only 55 seats in parliament. The opposition got 112 out of 167. The people of Venezuela gave the opposition a two-third majority and sent Maduro’s party home packing.Now the former opposition plans to release from prison criminals who engaged in violence under the disguise of fighting for democracy, and give people who received the one million houses created by the state a formal title which would allow them to sell them.  More significantly, Maduro is probably in power on borrowed time and will probably be removed from power within six months. While Maduro has the backing of the supreme court, the parliament can remove judges from power. It is only a matter of time before they do so.

Photo by Joshua Tartakovsky (c) all rights reserved 2015.

The extent of the popular rejection of Maduro’s policies was denied by Maduro himself who preferred to engage in denial as other failed leaders throughout history. Maduro continues to cling to power while repeating tired clichés on the Bolivarian Revolution. Following the results,  Maduro said: “workers of the fatherland know that you have a president, a son of Chávez, who will protect you.” But Maduro did not protect them. That’s why a majority, including many poor, voted for the opposition. Participation was 74%.

It is no longer deniable that Venezuela is an utter failure. Inflation is at insane levels. Crime is rampant. Speculation and hoarding are driving basic goods away while prices are skyrocketing. Corruption and wrongdoings are widespread including in the highest echelons of the government. And violence is everywhere. Indeed, as The Independent wrote, “Venezuelans punished Maduro’s government for widespread shortages, a plunging currency and triple-digit inflation that has brought the economy to the edge of collapse.”

Photo by Joshua Tartakovsky (c) all rights reserved 2015.

But truth be told, the dire economic situation is not entirely Maduro’s fault. There has been an economic war being waged against Venezuela. Speculation and hoarding were carried out or supported by powerful opposition forces that sought to bring Maduro down, with US support of course. For this reason, many international Trotskyists, supporters of Venezuela, and Maduro himself, chose to cast an accusing finger at the local oligarchy and the US for their meddling.

But blaming the US and the local opposition is an escapist answer and an unsatisfying one. After all, Maduro continued the Chavez legacy of providing generous social welfare programs, education, and health services. So what went wrong? Why did the people reject the hand that fed them? Why were Venezuelans that dumb that they failed to realize that the US was to be blamed and helped their enemy by voting out the PSUV?

The answer is simple. Venezuela did not have socialism. Venezuela had anarchy. Poor youth preferred to join gangs rather than pursue a free master and doctorate degree. Maduro didn’t take a strong action against gangs of poor youth and did not restore order.  Police and army were corrupt.  And constant talk about Chavez did not help. Social programs, when accompanied by a general sense of disorder, anarchy and violence, serve to bribe the public and deflect its attention from the real problems. With criminals given a free hand and a prevailing sense that there is no one in charge, Maduro left Venezuelas in fear and misery while refusing to act responsibly and decisively. Maduro did very little to crack down on the criminals and to punish speculators and hoarders, especially when they came from the poor classes, whose votes he needed. He constantly pointed fingers at the middle class and the elite, but didn’t address abuses by the poor. The poor were inherently innocent, in his view. Indeed, this is a view also shared by many Western Trotskyists who refuse to give the poor any real agency, believe in constant free handouts, and feel bad for those who they claim to help while not taking tough action when needed.

In my visit to Caracas months ago, I noticed the lines of impoverished residents hoarding basic goods and driving them out of the markets. The mean among them felt empowered, they could get away with anything while receiving free goods. The kind among them were silenced, as proper behavior was not rewarded. Maduro did nothing against these abuses of government subsidies. In fact, he continued to support populist programs. After all, Maduro needed the poor vote to get elected. But that was populism, not socialism. Real socialism, as in Cuba, is when people work hard to form a better society and then reap the fruits. Populism, the likes of which we see in Venezuela and in Western Europe with the migration crisis, is the free handouts to the poor and absolving the poor of any responsibility.

To make matters worse, Maduro kept making a fool of himself by regularly evoking the memory of Chavez as Venezuelans were exposed to constant violence and rising prices as if that is a solution or an excuse for his own inaction. Maduro even said that Chavez appeared to him as a bird (pajarito) and spoke to him. (He drew wide mockery for this not only in Venezuela but also in Cuba). Had Maduro taken tough action he would have been judged by the security he provided, not by his failure to do the impossible and be a proper replacement for Charismatic Chavez.

Photo by Joshua Tartakovsky (c) all rights reserved 2015.

But a deeper answer to why Venezuela is failing can be found in the words of Maduro himself, who said, following the voting of his own citizenry, that Venezuela was experiencing a“counterrevolution.” How can the democratic voting be deemed a “counterrevolution”? And when did Venezuela ever have a revolution?

Here lies a major point. It never had one! Calling Chavez’s steps a Bolivarian “Revolution” is doing a disservice to a real revolution as in Cuba in 1959. Cubans carried out a revolution via a lot of sweat and blood. Once achieved, they are grateful for it and are constantly working from below to continue the build a better society. Venezuela did not have a revolution, which is why they rejected the PSUV in the last elections.

Rather than the falsely termed “Bolivarian Revolution,” what Venezuela had was a charismatic leader, who tried to do a coup in 1999, unbacked by the public, failed, and was later elected democratically. Then in 2002, following the military coup in Venezuela, the crowd did come to Miraflores calling for the release of Chavez, but he was released shortly after and they did not need to carry out a take-over by force. (The scenes in 2002 were more of an orphaned public searching for their father figure rather than the masses carrying out a revolution to begin with). The people of Venezuela never really overthrew the government with their own hands. Instead they sat back and watched as Chavez did everything for them and spoke about the ongoing Bolivarian “Revolution.”

Venezuela was a perfect country for the Western Trotskyists.  Alan Woods and various other Trotskyists lauded Venezuela as a real democracy. British socialists were happy to identify with Hugo Chavez. With his big heart, charisma, sacrifice and leadership he captured the hearts of Venezuelans, Latin Americans and the world.

Venezuela was ideal. It was socialism and it was democracy. Chavez got his place via elections and did not assume power by force. He moved slowly and didn’t do anything too drastic. There was an opposition and an oppositions’ media. There was no death penalty.  Everything was done in the nice and proper way. In various socialist literature, Venezuela was praised as a model by Trotskyists. After all, it wasn’t “undemocratic” or “centralized” as Cuba.

Photo by Joshua Tartakovsky (c) all rights reserved 2015.

While in Cuba there were “distortions of the Cuban process” since it adopted the “Soviet model,” Venezuela did not and therefore will not be subject to “geopolitical pressures,” it was claimed.  Cuba was not real democratic socialism, the Trotskyists argued. Fidel was harshly criticized for his decision – brought up before the council of the state – to execute Arnoldo Ochoa, a Cuban military general involved in the drug-trade.   Moreover, Cuba, we were told, following the heroic1959 revolution, “did not result in the establishment of a genuine workers’ and peasants’ democracy…but brought about a bureaucratic regime…which managed a nationalized planned economy.” Fidel was accused of exercising too much power.  Indeed, the Trotskyists loved Venezuela. After all, Chavez himself said he is a Trotskyist and that he believed in a permanent revolution.

But let’s look at Cuba and Venezuela in comparison. Cuba, despite decades of an illegal comprehensive blockade, continues to be a step ahead. Cuba has an astonishing 100% literacy rate, excellent medical care and an advanced biomedical industry. It frequently provides medical products that the West failed to develop, despite the ongoing medical blockade against the island.  Cuba has close to perfect safety, far more than the US has, and of course more than anywhere else in Latin America. Violence and crime are almost non-existent and exceptionally rare, as UN personnel confirmed, with Havana being far safer than New York. Cuban parents know their children will not be shot by drug gangs and that leading figures of the country are not involved in a drug trade.  Petty criminals are punished. Venezuela on the other hand, has the world’s second largest homicide rate. In Venezuela, crime is rampant, and leading figures in the army, government and police are involved in corruption and possibly even in the drug trade. It is true that Venezuela made incredible gains in literacy and medicine. But violence rose since Chavez assumed power.  In Cuba there is order and security, in Venezuela there is chaos, fear and violence.

Cuba’s exceptional safety is largely because in addition to the socialism constructed by the people themselves (which must be differentiated from free hand-outs given by Western governments to their populace), there is an iron first against crime. Fidel led Cuba and executed a dirty general, and for this he was hated by the Trotskyists. They would have preferred Cuba to be a mess like Venezuela where “democratic socialism” means the gangs can wander around freely and practice their right to terrorize. But Cuba attracts tourists while no one wants to go to Venezuela and in Cuba there is law and order.  In fact, by this point, even the US is forced to negotiate with Cuba, although it still did not lift the illegal and criminal blockade. Venezuela is in shambles, after an economic war and cowardice at the top.

Photo by Joshua Tartakovsky (c) all rights reserved 2015.

Some may argue that it is unfair to compare Venezuela to Cuba, for Cuba is an island, while Venezuela shares a long continental border with Colombia, and gangs can infiltrate via the porous border. There is some truth to this claim, but things are more complicated. First, as an island, Cuba has been suffering from a total blockade by the US and its partners, which a land-border could have mitigated. Secondly, although Venezuela encounters different challenges than the ones faced by Cuba,  Maduro did not clean his own house first and did not rein in the corrupt officials. Even if Venezuela did not have a real revolution, Maduro could have saved the situation by providing real security. He could have reined in on corruption, executed leading corrupt generals, and cracked down on hoarding by the poor and rich alike. Instead, he opted for populist policies while constantly ridiculing himself by trying in vain to imitate Chavez. So what use is there to blame the US, when the Bolivarian “Revolution” allowed corrupt and criminal elements on all levels to flourish freely?

Another argument that could be made is that the central problem with both Chavez and Maduro was that they did not complete the revolution and allowed the existing capitalist infrastructure to remain in place, while relying on the high price of oil to sponsor social welfare. But even if Maduro or Chavez would have nationalized everything, crime would have remained rampant. The above argument fails to address the major issue of violence and corruption, which was only possible due to the sense in Venezuela that no one was fully in control.

Tragically, Chavez’s spoon-feeding the public resulted in growing corruption among the police, and growing crime, a sense of entitlement by the population and growing chaos. (It is true that there were communes springing all over Venezuela where people practiced socialism on a small scale and achieved great results [to the pleasure of the anarchists], but in the large cities there was a lack of law and order, and the small communes could not of course protect themselves from the plummeting value of the Bolivar).  That Maduro’s party suffered a humiliating defeat should come at no surprise. After all, that was the will of the people. It should also come at no surprise that Chavez’s picture was removed from parliament. The picture was placed there by the government in a cheap populist tactic to use Chavez’  memory to garner support. But in Cuba, while there are pictures of Fidel in different places, the government did not once mandate that his pictures be placed in public buildings. It done was done on part of the people themselves. Not one street or building was named after Fidel in Cuba, but in Venezuela Maduro encouraged the worship of Chavez (although, it should be said, the public loved him anyway and Chavista graffiti and his pictures can be seen everywhere). After all, when there is neither bread nor security to offer, perhaps a picture of Chavez will do.

In December, “socialist” populism was defeated.  But maybe now a real revolution can take place.  If the Chavistas use their weapons and take seriously the slogan “Yo Soy Chavez,” maybe they can start-off a real Bolivarian Revolution.  Or, perhaps, the military, an admirer of Chavez, can save Chavez’ legacy and take over while restoring much needed order. There is no time to lose.