Venezuela is experiencing a profound humanitarian crisis. Any attempt to deny as much is abhorrent as it ignores the massive suffering of the Venezuelan people.
The crisis has all but obliterated the undeniable and impressive social gains achieved between 2003 and 2013, when Venezuela saw massive reductions in poverty and inequality and dramatically improved living standards. The crisis has also severely eroded Chavismo’s equally impressive and undeniable political gains, such as the significant (albeit uneven) empowerment of swaths of society previously excluded from politics. We should recognize these losses without surrendering to the narrative that proclaims Chavismo was doomed to fail from the beginning. This narrative must be rejected not only because it is false, but also because it is part of a broader reactionary project of demonizing Chavismo and the left project of building a better world. We must also reject the narrative that Chavismo is “dead.” While severely battered, the popular movements that are the beating heart of Chavismo have not disappeared: these movements continue to fight, and will be vitally important in determining the future of Venezuela.
The origins of the crisis are complex and involve a mix of long-, medium-, and short-term factors, including: Venezuela’s century-old dependence on oil, which is in turn a legacy of the capitalist world order and Venezuela’s peripheral position within this order; flawed government measures, particularly related to currency policy, which fostered corruption estimated to exceed many hundreds of billions of dollars; government repression of peaceful protest and dissent amid a broader turn away from political democracy and towards authoritarian rule; opposition actions such as speculative hoarding of goods, killing of civilians and government personnel, and intentional damage to public infrastructure and resources, including medical facilities and stored food; US government actions, including overt and covert support for the most violent sectors of the opposition, and the direct and indirect effects of sanctions, which since at least 2015 have deprived the government of significant funds, mostly by denying it access to international credit markets.
Recent US actions — particularly the sanctions imposed in August 2017 and January 2019 — have severely exacerbated the crisis and must now be seen as a leading proximate cause of the extremely dire situation facing millions of Venezuelans. A recent report estimates that August 2017 sanctions caused an additional forty thousand deaths in Venezuela by the end of 2018. While this number is impossible to verify, and may be too high or too low, it is both illogical and abhorrent to deny that US sanctions have produced a massive increase in suffering in Venezuela.
US policy towards Venezuela is not motivated by a concern with democracy, human rights, or humanitarianism. Washington has long backed regimes with political and human rights records that are often far worse than the Maduro administration’s, including Saudi Arabia, Colombia (where being an organizer is often a death sentence), Brazil, Honduras, and Haiti. Several of these countries have recently held deeply flawed or openly fraudulent elections that are nonetheless recognized by the US. Washington’s lack of real concern over Venezuelans’ suffering is also patently obvious: how else to interpret Trump officials’ willingness to joke about the debilitating impact of sanctions by, for example, comparing it to Darth Vader’s death grip? Or consider the US’s recent decision to end all flights to Venezuela, which even the New York Times notes is likely to significantly deepen the already catastrophic level of human suffering.
In addition to being immoral, illegal, and hypocritical, the US’s open support for regime change has been extremely ineffective. Despite nearly four months of nonstop US aggression Maduro remains in office, with seemingly solid support from the upper echelons of the military and state. US actions also appear to have solidified Maduro’s backing amongst Venezuela’s popular sectors: according to grassroots Chavista organizers there was growing popular-sector mobilization against Maduro in early January 2019, but since Juan Guaidó’s January 23 self-proclamation as president, grassroots Chavista leaders have rallied around Maduro in spite of their fierce critiques of (and even disgust at) his leadership.
The US has repeatedly undermined attempts to resolve Venezuela’s crisis in a peaceful manner through government-opposition negotiations. In doing so, Washington has increased the chances the crisis will be resolved through violence.
Juan Guaidó’s actions have made the situation in Venezuela more dangerous in a number of ways: by increasing the likelihood of US military action, which he has openly called for; undermining moderate opposition sectors more open to negotiations and dialogue; wedding the opposition to the US, which reduces the possibility that the opposition will outline positive measures to reverse Venezuela’s crisis and appeal more directly to popular sectors critical of Maduro but wary of the opposition and the US; failing to condemn the dangerous vindictiveness of his closest supporters, such as his “US ambassador” Carlos Vecchio, who proclaimed that he was cutting electricity to Venezuela’s Washington, D.C. embassy to give “Embassy Protection Collective” activists “a little bit of the experience of living in Venezuela”; and failing to condemn appalling recent opposition violence, such as the looting and arson of “the headquarters of the Indio Caricuao Commune in southwest Caracas,” which happened in the wake of Guaidó’s desperate and comically ineffective April 30 coup attempt.
Juan Guaidó’s popularity within Venezuela appears to have fallen, yet available evidence suggests he remains popular and enjoys some popular sector support. For some, and particularly those in the popular sectors, support for Guaidó is likely related more to his stature as the most prominent opponent of Maduro than support for Guaidó’s far-right, pro-market policies.
Reasonable people may disagree on the appropriateness and tactical efficacy of openly criticizing (or supporting) Maduro, but there should be no debate on the pressing need for those in the US to oppose sanctions and threats of war in any and all ways, including: pressuring representatives and senators to support or co-sponsor H.R. 1004 and S.J. Res. 11, Prohibiting Unauthorized Military Action in Venezuela Act; pressuring progressive Democrats to take a firmer stand against US interventionism; pushing back against Guaidó and his associates’ efforts to scuttle hopes for negotiations by illegally taking over Venezuelan diplomatic posts; and marching and engaging in other protest actions to oppose US war and sanctions.
Attempts to shut down left debate about Venezuela or make support for (or opposition to) Maduro a litmus test for opposing US interventionism should be opposed for three reasons. First, on principle. The Left must uphold open debate and respect for differences of opinion. Second, for substantive reasons. The Bolivarian Revolution includes a rich set of positive and negative lessons of what the Left should and should not do. Some of these lessons are obvious: policies that reduce poverty and inequality and empower the many can be politically very popular and should be supported; powerful domestic and foreign interests will oppose such policies, and the Left must think about how to deal with this. Other lessons are less obvious: how do we avoid the mistakes that have haunted past revolutions, including dysfunctional economic policies, a turning away from grassroots, popular power, and bureaucracy and corruption within the state? And how do we do this while also defending against foreign and domestic aggression? Figuring out the answers to these and other pressing questions is crucial. The only way to do this is through honest and open debate. Finally, there is the question of strategy. Whether we like it or not, the Venezuela solidarity, and broader anti-imperialist, movement includes people and groups with a range of views on Maduro and Venezuela. Insisting that everyone share the same perspective is a recipe for keeping the movement small and irrelevant. Doing this is also bad politics: we can and must avoid sectarianism without surrendering fundamental principles like egalitarianism, anti-imperialism, antiracism, feminism, and a shared commitment to building an inclusive, deeply democratic, noncapitalist, and ecologically sustainable world.