Venezuela: is the problem really 'socialism'?

There is an unseemly tone of gloating to conservative commentary on the crisis in Venezuela, with pundits calling out their opposite numbers on the left for their cheerleading for the regime and pointing to the current chaos as evidence that "socialism" doesn't work. Indeed, many left-wing commentators deserve to be called out for their uncritical attitude toward the late Hugo Chávez and his mediocre successor Nicolás Maduro. But a case can be made that, contrary to conservative and mainstream assumptions, the problem is precisely that the Bolivarian Revolution has been insufficiently revolutionary and socialist.

A particularly frustrating case in point... In the Los Angeles Times, writer James Kirchick (who has done some valuable work but also scribbled shameful propaganda in support of the Honduran coup) writes: "Remember all those left-wing pundits who drooled over Venezuela?" He especially blasts Naomi Klein for her glorification of chavismo over the years, and justly asks her what she has to say about the current debacle. (We want to know too, Naomi.) But Kirchick prognosticates problematically:

Socialist economic policies—price controls, factory nationalizations, government takeovers of food distribution and the like—have real human costs. Eighty percent of Venezuelan bakeries don’t have flour. Eleven percent of children under 5 are malnourished, infant mortality has increased by 30% and maternal mortality is up 66%. The Maduro regime has met protests against its misrule with violence. More than 100 people have died in anti-government demonstrations and thousands have been arrested. Loyal police officers are rewarded with rolls of toilet paper.

Funny, when food riots happen in thoroughly capitalist countries, mainstream commentators never take it as an indictment of capitalism—in spite of much actual indicting evidence.  But, more to the point, Kirchick never demonstrates how the economic collapse is a result of the policies he delineates. And maybe the problem isn't Venezuela's "socialist economic policies," but the fact that they haven't been socialist enough.

Venezuela's oil industry was never nationalized, as it was in Mexico in 1938. The private multinationals were allowed to continue operating in Venezuela, as minority partners with the state company—the same policy as in Venezuela's right-wing neighbor Colombia. The limited agrarian reform left the landed oligarchy intact, leading Venezuela's campesino movement to grow impatient if not disillusioned. And the continued emphasis on the extractivist economy cost the government much good will with Venezuela's indigenous movements.

In other words, rather than redistributing the land to empower the campesino sector and genuinely strive toward food self-sufficiency, Chávez and Maduro have instead emphasized a clientelist distribution of oil wealth to build party loyalty. This left the whole model vulnerable to the crash in oil prices. But again, more to the point: That model is not socialism. It is corporatism. (Actual corporatism, as the term was used in the 20th century to describe populist regimes that sought to control social movements from above.)

Stateside lefty journals and NGOs that hyped Venezuela's supposed drive toward "food sovereignty" (a construction that does not quite imply actual self-sufficiency) have been silent as it has become inescapably clear that the initiative has failed. A year ago, Food First at least took a shot at explaining the rise in hunger in Venezuela, but still concluded that the country was "being targeted daily for dire coverage that does not reflect reality on the ground..." Is that still your assessment now, Food First?

Mike Gonzalez on the RS21 website (for "Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century," aptly enough) has a refreshing look, entitled "Being honest about Venezuela." He writes:

Those who are bearing the brunt of the crisis are also those who most passionately supported Chávez's Bolivarian project and its promise that the nation's oil wealth would go to social programs in health, education, and housing. Chávez promised to invest the surplus for the future, diversifying the economy and escaping from the trap of oil dependency.

This project has failed. Today, 95 percent of Venezuela's external income comes from oil, as opposed to 67 percent twenty years ago. Meanwhile, GDP has fallen by 18 percent as industrial and agricultural production has collapsed in many sectors. State reserves have fallen to 40 percent of their 2012 levels. Almost 90 percent of the population cannot buy enough food, which explains the average weight loss of eight kilos. Milk consumption has dropped by half. No data is yet available on the impact of the medicine shortages....

Just before he died in 2013, Chavez wrote a preface to the 2013–19 national plan that acknowledged that the state had not changed and called for the tiller to be pulled in a new direction. Unfortunately, those he hoped would act were already embedded in the state bureaucracy and were benefitting from the systemic corruption.

And even within the context of oil-dependency, things were badly managed:

Chavismo's defenders will argue that the fall in the price of oil caused this crisis, but that is simply not true. While oil profits have dropped, the preceding boom should have allowed the government to save enough money to deal with the present crisis and then some, as Manuel Sutherland's careful math has demonstrated.

The government based its budget on selling oil for sixty dollars a barrel even when prices were double that. This additional income disappeared into a corrupt system that the Chavista state administers and sustains.

But actually, the most dogmatic chavismo cheerleaders aren't even that honest, fixating instead on US destabilization efforts—as if a protest movement of the magnitude of what is now seen in Venezuela could be dismissed as CIA astroturf.

One thing you would certainly not glean from the commentary on either side is the existence in Venezuela of a traditionally marginal but now growing independent left that rejects both sides—critical of Maduro from the left, seeking to deepen the truly revolutionary aspects of the "Bolivarian Revolution," and repudiating efforts by the right-wing opposition and imperialism to exploit the crisis. We'd like to hear more about them.

Venezuela's food crisis: Monthly Review takes a stab at it

Ana Felicien, Christina Schiavoni and Liccia Romero have a piece in Monthly Review, "The Politics of Food in Venezuela," that attempts to shed some light on the roots of the crisis—while to some extent denying that it actually is one. The word "crisis" is often placed in scare quotes, and the word "narrative" (meaning the "dominant" one, of popular unrest due to scarcity) is used an embarrassing 17 times. For instance: "The dominant narrative tends to obscure not only the main drivers of the current crisis, but also the many responses coming from the grassroots." The problem is that the writers are better at describing those grassroots responses (while dodging the question of how truly "grassroots" a government-initiated program can really be) than identifying the "main drivers" of the crisis.

They spend more time shooting down the "narrative" than providing alternative explanations. And even some of their deconstructions are flawed. For instance:

Petroleum is central to the dominant narrative, which claims that the Chávez government won its popularity on the strength of high oil prices and personal charisma, while Maduro's relative unpopularity is attributable to the plunge in prices and political ineptitude. Once again, this familiar story distorts the facts in key ways. First, as economist Luis Salas has shown, although oil prices did indeed rise for much of Chávez’s presidency, its peak at or around $100 per barrel was an aberration that occurred in the last stage of Chávez's presidency, between 2010 and 2012, whereas the average price per barrel over the course of his presidency was closer to $55 per barrel... Second, the shortages that have attracted such interest are in fact part of a broader trend seen over the course of the Bolivarian Revolution, through both periods of high and low oil prices, and particularly at politically heightened moments such as the lead-up to elections.Furthermore, the most recent shortages did not begin in 2014, when oil prices dropped, but before, in 2013, while prices were still high.

OK. First, this ignores that Venezuela has become more rather than less oil-dependent throughout the Chávez-Maduro period. And second, while darkly implying that the timing of the shortages indicates they are attributable to some sinister imperialist intrigue, the writers offer no suggestion of how the mechanics of that would actually work.

There is an uncritical analogy to the CIA destabilization campaign against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, despite the obvious differences between the two situations, and much talk about the suppossed middle-class composition of the guarimbas (violent protests). An embarrassing quote from a State Department official is provided:

The pressure campaign is working. The financial sanctions we have placed on the Venezuelan Government has forced it to begin becoming in default, both on sovereign and PDVSA, its oil company’s debt. And what we are seeing because of the bad choices of the Maduro regime is a total economic collapse in Venezuela. So our policy is working, our strategy is working and we’re going to keep it on the Venezuelans.

But there is no general embargo of Venezuela as there was against Nicaragua in the '80s. Until they were expanded by Trump after Maduro's snap re-election this May, the sanctions have mostly targeted particular individuals in the Caracas government. And the first sanctions were not imposed until 2015. And this, as the authors reminded us in their own discussion about oil prices, was after the shortages first began. 

There is interesting discussion of some of the alternatives the government has been trying to put in place to get people fed (although one fears the authorities are also "using food as a weapon," as these alternatives may exclude those outside Maduro's support base). These include the Plan Pueblo a Pueblo (People to People Plan), which is seeking to "forge direct links between rural producers and urban inhabitants." The rural producers in question are the comunas, collective farms created by the agrarian reform. Also described are the Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción (Local Provisioning and Production Committees), known as CLAPs, which are working to get poor barrios fed. There is said to be an aspiration toward "zero-dollar agriculture." The 1999 constitution guarantees food security for all citizens, "through the promotion of sustainable agriculture as a strategic basis for integrated rural development."

But there is little acknowlegement of the government's manifest failure to live up to that commitment in the nearly two decades since then, nor of how the "grassroots" responses have been either too little, too late or both. This despite the authors' claim to a "nuanced understanding of contemporary Venezuela."