The media should stop asking Bernie Sanders ridiculous questions about Venezuela. If he’s going to keep getting them, though, he should start giving more fleshed-out and strategic answers.
The premise that his brand of democratic socialism would involve anything like the kind of repressive crackdowns that have happened recently in Venezuela is absurd. But he should take the opportunity of being asked “what about Venezuela?” questions to educate Americans about the complexities of politics in the region — and the profoundly damaging role that’s been played there by the United States.
In 2016, some people, supporters and critics alike thought that foreign policy was Sanders’s weak point. In 2020, it’s clear this is not the case. In our view, Sanders is not getting nearly enough credit for the way he’s matched his bold and uniquely transformational domestic policies with some strong moves towards a genuinely creative and smart foreign policy. That’s exactly why we believe that he can and should use this opportunity to speak about Venezuela to his advantage.
At the last Democratic debate, moderator Jorge Ramos asked Sanders why he wouldn’t call Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro a “dictator,” as well as what the differences were between “your kind of socialism” and “the one being imposed in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.” Sanders responded by endorsing the records of Canada and the Scandinavian countries, all of which have enacted important social programs without sacrificing democracy. In the course of his answer, Sanders referred to Nicholas Maduro as a “vicious tyrant.”
That’s about as extreme a condemnation of a foreign head of state with whom the United States isn’t at war as you’re likely to get from a major politician. You won’t hear anyone in mainstream politics talking that way about, for example, Mohammed Bin Salman, crown prince and de facto head of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Apparently, though, it wasn’t good enough.
The next person to speak was Julian Castro, who seized on the fact that Sanders had held back from using the magic word “dictator” to score some political points. “I’ll call Maduro a dictator,” he told Ramos, “because he’s a dictator.”
Of course, Maduro has done much that a democratic socialist like Sanders can’t and shouldn’t endorse. It’s possible, however, to acknowledge the reality of the Venezuelan government’s authoritarianism and economic mismanagement without portraying the country as something like, well, Saudi Arabia. (Last we checked, Venezuela hasn’t beheaded or crucified anyone.)
The “Bolivarian Revolution” initiated by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, had real accomplishments. Unemployment and extreme poverty were cut in half during President Chavez’s first decade in office. Infant mortality was reduced from 20 to 13 per 1,000 live births. All of this was accomplished despite the best efforts of an opposition that resorted to everything from employer-led economic lockouts to a US-backed military coup in 2002. Even with a private press that was uniformly and ludicrously hostile to the government, Chavez kept winning handily in internationally certified multiparty elections.
Chavez’s critics could point out that, despite the continued existence of this liberal democratic framework, the Bolivarian government did illiberal things like refusing to renew the terrestrial broadcast license of the important opposition television station RCTV in 2007. Some of these criticisms are less convincing than others. But even where the critics do have a point, we can acknowledge it without insisting that the Bolivarian experiment be depicted as cartoonishly evil.
We can celebrate FDR’s achievements despite the fact that he put Japanese Americans in concentration camps and made numerous policy concessions to Southern Democrats who were overseeing an apartheid system that systematically dehumanized, disenfranchised, and lynched African Americans. We can recognize that the passage of Medicare and the Civil Right Act were major landmarks in the progress of American democracy despite the fact that President Johnson combined these domestic policy achievements with a record in Southeast Asia that was frankly genocidal.
If we nevertheless think that everything Chavez achieved is hopelessly overshadowed by the fact that an opposition-aligned television station lost its terrestrial broadcast license during his presidency, this says something fairly stunning about how different the standards we apply to foreign leaders are from the ones we think appropriate when evaluating our own heads of state.
More importantly, if Sanders limits his answers to “Venezuela bad, Scandinavia good,” his listeners don’t have any sense of why the Scandinavian countries have been able to accomplish so much more than Venezuela.
Norway, for example, has an extensive welfare state that, like the far more modest programs instituted by Chavez, is rooted in state ownership of the country’s oil supply. Why has Norway been able to combine a high level of public ownership of economic resources and extensive social spending with a stable economy and a smoothly functioning democratic system, while Venezuela has not?
The answer is complicated and can’t be reduced to any one factor. We have no interest in denying that domestic political decisions made by Venezuela’s rulers have made things worse. But no honest accounting of what’s happened there can leave out the role of US intervention.
You can’t tell the story of Cuba in 1959 without talking about what Fidel and Che learned from the CIA-backed coup against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and the ensuing bloodbath against leftists. (As with Venezuela, it would be a mistake to succumb to a one-sided narrative about Cuba, simplistically contrasting the clear downsides of Cuban Communism with the virtuous record of social democracies in the Global North. The tremendous strides Cuba has been able to make in health care, education, and many other areas as a result of expropriating its oligarchs have rightly been an inspiration to left-wing movements throughout the region. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, endorsing legitimate democratic-socialist criticisms of Cuba’s authoritarianism without downplaying the many real achievements of their revolution.)
Even governments with economic agendas as relatively modest as that of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, who literally spoke when he ran for president of lifting the Haitian people “from misery to poverty,” have been removed by US Marines. This isn’t ancient history from the height of the Cold War: Aristide was removed in 2004. The United States backed a coup against the democratically elected left-wing president of Honduras in 2009. The Brazilian right wing coordinated with the United States in carrying out a “soft coup” by which the wildly popular former president Lula da Silva was arrested on trumped-up charges and not allowed to run in that country’s election — and this happened last year.
Donald Trump tried to make Juan Guaido the president of Venezuela this year. Far from being a one-off event, the United States has been trying to dislodge first Chavez and then Maduro from the beginning. Chavez won the first of several internationally supervised democratic elections in 1998. He took office in 1999. The United States openly backed an attempted military coup against him in 2002 and spent the rest of his time in office funding an opposition that used tactics ranging from street riots to employer-led economic lockouts to bring down the Bolivarian government. The increasingly hard-line policies of the Maduro government have to be understood in this context.
None of this means that governments in Cuba, Venezuela, or elsewhere in the region lack agency or that the political choices they make in response to US aggression can’t be legitimately criticized. It does, however, mean that any adult discussion of these matters has to start with acknowledging the 400-ton elephant in the room: the role of the world’s dominant imperial hegemon in crushing attempts by Latin American governments to replicate FDR’s New Deal or Scandinavia’s social democracies.
For all the talk of Venezuela’s economic collapse being an indictment of “socialism,” the fact is that even at the height of Chavez’s welfare state, Venezuela’s public sector was smaller than the public sectors of many European countries. The difference is that places like Norway and Sweden can move in that direction without having to worry about the United States partnering with local plutocrats to sponsor death squads or carry out military coups.
Would Sanders be sabotaging himself politically if he pointed any of this out? We don’t think so. It’s become overwhelmingly clear in the last several years that the American public is tired of endless wars and sick of seeing the United States as the world’s policeman. Sanders also has a long record of being on the right side of the issues.
As mayor of Burlington in the 1980s he found time in between initiatives to build affordable housing and transition the Burlington Electric Department to renewable energy to speak out against Reagan’s dirty war in Nicaragua. He needs to draw on that understanding now, using silly red-baiting questions about Venezuela as an opportunity to talk about how and why he would pursue a foreign policy as president that would be fundamentally different from that of any of his predecessors.
If Trump is replaced by someone like Joe Biden, very little will change on that front. A Sanders presidency, on the other hand, could not only work to decrease economic injustice in this country, but allow governments in Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world to do the same thing.