Christmas in Caracas? Worse Than the Grinch!

Christmas in Caracas? Worse Than the Grinch!

Christmas in Caracas? Worse Than the Grinch!

Amid today’s crisis, what is salvageable from the Bolivarian Revolution? A conversation with Alejandro Velasco.


The latest news out of Venezuela is that the government has seized nearly 4 million toys from the warehouse of a toy distributor, which it plans to distribute to poor children, claiming the company was hoarding the goods. “Worse than the Grinch,” cried anti-Chavistas, who cited Dr. Seuss to affirm the sacrosanctity of property rights. “We’re providing legal help to the Baby Jesus,” said President Nicolás Maduro. Talk about a fight over first principles.

Things are bad in Venezuela, but the seizure of the Christmas toys reminds us that Bolivarians are no Jacobins. In France, at the height of its revolutionary terror in 1793-94, toy makers stocked their Christmas windows with little model guillotines, with which, according to a 1928 Gilded Era compendium of “toys from bygone days,” budding “patriots could behead figures of aristocrats.” Writing from Bavaria on Christmas 1793, Goethe asked his mother, who was in Paris, to pick up one for his son, August. “What!” she replied. “Let the young play with anything so horrible,—place in their hands for their diversion murder and blood-shedding? No, that will never do!” The worst fate Venezuela’s opposition leaders face is that they have to use their US credit cards to order from Amazon to stuff their Christmas stockings.

Bolivarian Venezuela is not revolutionary France. It’s not even, when it comes to everyday violence, Mexico, where bodies are piling up faster than snow in Whoville. And Maduro’s certainly not Saint-Just. After a decade of self-described “socialism” (as Alejandro Velasco reminds us below, it wasn’t until 2005, seven years after his election, after having faced stiff opposition to the mildest reforms, that Hugo Chávez declared himself a socialist), it’s the opposition that is bloodstained, responsible for significantly more political terror and assassinations than the would-be revolutionaries. They do Robespierre proud, having even come up with a novel way to behead: In 2014, when they tried to stage a revolt to unseat Maduro, anti-government forces strung galvanized wire across city streets, which led to at least one decapitation of a motorcyclist. See this summary by Gabriel Hetland, who writes that the true executors of Venezuela’s “brutal history is almost totally absent from mainstream media depictions of the opposition.” Over 40 people, mostly Chavistas or government employees, were killed in 2014 protests; and “approximately two hundred peasant leaders killed by ranchers opposed to the 2001 land reform law pushed by Chávez.”

The economic crisis in Venezuela, though, is real, and the reporting on it has been stultifying. Shortages are being reported on with glee in the United States, with the takeaway being that the failure of the Bolivarian Revolution is inherent in the idea of the Bolivarian Revolution, in the fundamental premise related to socialism. Latin America has long served as a sharpening stone, on which ideas about what a proper, temperate, and responsible politics and market-based economics could be honed. Want to see where Sanders-style social democracy will lead? Cast your eyes south! Spectacle is always more fun to look at than structure, and despite the current shortage of toilet paper in Venezuela, the fact remains that poverty, inequality, malnutrition, lack of healthcare, and chronic violence in Latin America owe more to the neoliberal structural adjustment policies Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton put into place than political movements seeking to roll back those policies.

To make sense of what is going on in Venezuela, let’s turn to Alejandro Velasco, whose recently published book, Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela, has just been published. Barrio Rising looks at the three decades that preceded Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election to the presidency, focusing on “23 de Enero,” a poor urban neighborhood famous for its insurgent militancy. Velasco’s book is excellent, placing Chávez and Chavismo in a larger context and reminding us that the political polarization and economic hardship we are witnessing in Venezuela is more the norm than the exception. Velasco, who is a colleague at NYU, is also the editor of the recently revived NACLA’s Report on the Americas, which is the place to go for coverage of Latin America. Check it out and subscribe!

Velasco, who is Venezuelan, just returned from Caracas. Below is a wide-ranging discussion, touching on questions of tactics, the limits and possibility of popular power, efforts to achieve food sovereignty, the relationship of the state to social movements, corruption, and what remains of Bolivarianism.

Greg Grandin: You’ve just returned from Venezuela. What are your impressions?

Alejandro Velasco: I spent five weeks in Caracas. It was worse than I imagined, but not in the way I expected. Most of the coverage has offered up scenes that rival anything coming out of Aleppo or Sudan or the Mediterranean: starving Venezuelans rummaging through trash or getting by on mangos, fleeing to the tune of tens of thousands a day—by raft to Curacao, overland to Colombia, on planes to anywhere they can—fending off outbreaks of malaria and diphtheria, locked in their homes at all times but especially after nightfall. One analyst recently stated that Venezuela’s current crisis is the worst in all of Latin America in the last 35 years. That’s in all of Latin America. Since 1981. No worse crisis. Period.

Sweeping statements of this sort immediately raise my suspicion. Not because they are implausible or untrue, but because Venezuela has been the playground of breathless maximalism for close to two decades now. The sky is perpetually at hand, or perpetually falling. Well, the sky is definitely falling, but in a way very different from most of the coverage. To be sure, I saw plenty of trash rummaging, though not especially different from what I have seen elsewhere in the United States or, certainly, at other times in Venezuela during and before the Chávez era, and elsewhere throughout Latin America.

People are leaving?

I spoke with several friends and acquaintances—young and old—in the process of leaving Venezuela, but insofar as there’s been a spike in migration, it’s more a function of the recent opening of the Colombian border, coupled of course with the worsening crisis. I also did a lot of walking and took public transportation—Metro and bus—throughout the city without incident, in the daytime and nighttime. I saw construction crews and cranes putting up strikingly opulent and cutting-edge residential and commercial properties. I saw packed restaurants and grocery stores and malls, and even Canadian firs selling like hotcakes, which was only slightly more disorienting than the multi-day yoga fest that stretched well past sunset at a major public plaza. None of which is to minimize the crisis. By any measure it is severe, inflation especially.

Yoga amid the ruins. What’s the cause of the crisis?

As the government holds on to a thoroughly discredited currency control, for little more reason than to feed the corruption that keeps its inner core afloat, it has basically moved increasingly to dollarize more and more parts of the economy, both formally and informally. Last year it was real estate and auto sales. Now it’s extended to most food items, which are imported as Venezuela’s historic dependence on foreign products has deepened over the last decade plus. As I saw in the company of a friend who works security at a government warehouse in the western Caracas area of Catia, even putatively subsidized products are being sold at black-market rates—from government stores. And because most distribution is controlled by the military, as Maduro formally appointed generals to take the fight against what he calls “economic war,” distribution is almost completely unaccountable and therefore highly susceptible to corruption, from petty to large-scale.

On top of the increasing unaffordability of products, there was also the shortage of cash, as it takes (or took) ten of the highest-note bills—1,000 bolivares (new ones were just released this week, with the highest note topping at 20,000)—to buy a cup of coffee, and ATMs could only dispense as much as 6,000 or 8,000 per day. So the spectacle of long lines at ATMs has replaced the spectacle of long lines at stores as a paradoxical feature of economic crisis. This is just one area. There are many others. Basic infrastructure is shot—so few street lamps work at night that the city feels darker; broken sidewalks, burned out streetlights, open manholes—on highways. While food is available at inflated prices, medicines are scarce, as are the dollars to purchase them, creating the strange picture of pharmacies forced to stay afloat by stocking as many supplies of candy, soda, and snacks as they do pills—sort of like CVS and Walgreens without the Rx.

What is the state of rank-and-file Chavismo? Your book, Barrio Rising, looked at the multi-decade history preceding Chávez’s coming to the presidency in 1998, looking especially at militant forms of popular, direct democracy in an impoverished, but militant and organized, urban barrio, 23 de Enero, that became a bastion of Chavista support (even if activists there wouldn’t primarily identify as Chavista).

What I heard there was disconcerting: anger and frustration at the government, especially in bulwarks of radical leftism like the 23 de Enero in western Caracas. El 23 is always among my first stops when I return to Caracas, and I spend much time there besides. It’s not only where I lived over a year while researching what became my book, which is a social history of the neighborhood. It’s also where many friends live and work and struggle, people who have long imagined themselves as revolutionaries first, Chavistas second—if at all. As early as 2003, when I first began working in the neighborhood, acerbic critiques of Chávez and his government were rife: too accommodationist, too top-down, too rentier. But their critiques were always couched in recognition that what Chávez, and Chavismo, offered was a space to experiment with forms of grassroots democracy whose roots I trace in my book. Their ability to navigate support for and opposition to the government, based on decades of organizing electorally and otherwise to seek the benefits of full citizenship, long informed their approach to Chavismo, critical support.

But that’s changed?

As recently as last year, what was striking was the urgency of the rage I heard from friends and respondents—arrechera, in Venezuelan parlance—directed at government corruption, incompetence, and indecision, and most particularly at the military, all of which they understood as the primary enemies of gains they had made over the previous decade. Mind you, these are people who staked their lives in 2002 to support Chávez during the failed coup, who flocked to the polls to support his and his candidates’ elections, who took to the streets—sometimes violently and earning rebukes by Chávez and other officials—to confront opposition guarimbas [demonstrations] in 2004, 2007, and 2014. But they are also people who didn’t hesitate to oppose Chávez and Chavismo. Most recently, many were surprised when the opposition won by a small margin in El 23 last December. It was read as a sign that even in this most Chavista of neighborhoods, people were ready to take their chances with the opposition. That’s not the case. Rather, as at other moments, they were sending a powerful signal—either by abstaining or voting for the opposition—of their displeasure with the government, far short of actually handing state power to a political alternative that they remained convinced would offer nothing better.

That vote, I think, revealed something other than anti-government rage, something even more disturbing, certainly new to my experience among popular sectors under Chavismo: demoralization. It’s a mutually reinforcing dynamic. On the one hand, there’s a sense that the government has completely forsaken them, even in some cases actively turned against them. (For instance by stoking and feeding corruption and lack of accountability by the military, or more recently, by unleashing severe violence in the form of the Operativos para la Liberación de la Patria, or OLPs, which are a ostensibly a response to violent crime, special ops targeting criminal gangs with near impunity. But in practice they have turned into a mano dura [heavy hand] operation directed at popular sectors, much as during the pre-Chávez era.) On the other hand, there’s the paralysis that comes with a lack of alternatives. As bad as things are, the opposition in power would be an even worse option.

What about the opposition?

Demoralization extends to opposition supporters, too, for similar reasons. I went to an opposition protest on October 27 that was billed as the “Toma de Venezuela.” It was meant to follow up on the massive Toma de Caracas on September 1, but since the courts had recently invalidated a recall effort to oust Maduro, the expectation was that this protest would be far bigger. It wasn’t. And in the crowd, what I perceived was general aimlessness, outdone only by the general confusion and division among opposition leaders on stage. The opposition leadership came up with four ideas on the fly: march to the Presidential Palace; engage in Vatican-mediated dialogue; impeach Maduro; and continue to press for a referendum.

This level of improvisation and contradiction, precisely at a time when you would think the opposition would be most united and clear-eyed, having won control of the National Assembly in a major electoral victory last December, was such a powerful indication of the emptiness and protagonismo that has long characterized opposition politics. It’s been at moments when the political landscape seems to favor them most when the opposition has tended to splinter, precisely because the thrill of seemingly at-hand state power unleashes conflicts over who will be in charge.

So, to go back to your first question, my impression was that Venezuela’s crisis is bad. But its most troubling feature extends far deeper than meets the eye, whether in newscasts or on page one. It is a crisis, simultaneously, of social inertia and political paralysis, across the political spectrum.

Is anything working? Is there anything salvageable from the Bolivarian Revolution?

The crisis has shown that many of the flagship initiatives that generated excitement about Venezuela among the left were troublingly thin, too dependent on state resources in order to function. That’s certainly true of the misiones—the wildly popular social programs that redistributed oil wealth and lifted millions out of poverty in the form of medical care, subsidized food, education scholarships, and more. Also, many communal councils and, more recently, communes, have struggled to remain operative with fewer and fewer resources at hand, and with a weak Maduro government trying to consolidate power at their expense rather than with their support. Even Chávez’s reluctance to fight crime with a heavy hand has been rolled back with the OLPs, leaving the poor to fend off the twin banes of criminal and state violence.

It’s difficult in this context to see any positive vestiges from the Chávez era. But we forget that before Chávez declared himself socialist in 2005 (seven years after his first election), before the first misiones launched in 2003, what the Bolivarian Revolution promised was a political system that took into account Venezuelans long sidelined by a rigid two-party system that had closed opportunities for political participation, and that in some cases—as in the 1989 Caracazo unrest—had brutally repressed them. In the years before 2003, years before the oil boom, years when material gains were few and far between, and when even modest reforms were met with tremendous resistance and outright insurrection by long-entrenched elites, what drew a majority to support and defend the Bolivarian Revolution was a deeper sense of long delayed recognition.

Some of the more lasting gains of the revolution date to this period, and to the experience of local-level organizing before skyrocketing oil prices set Venezuela on a familiar but magnified boom and bust cycle. Especially among social movements with organizing trajectories that predated Chávez, what they managed to do was turn formal recognition by the state (in particular via the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, which remains among the most progressive in the world) into something meaningful by pressuring the government to follow through.

Urban Land Committees that secured property titles for many longtime squatters are one example. Communal councils that still meet and whose mission has turned to mutual aid in the face of the crisis are those that draw on deep organizing roots. Rural communes that work have done so by distancing themselves from the state in crisis and finding ways among themselves to link forces, as through the Red Comunera [Network of Communes]. The Bolivarian Revolution offered both a mandate to mobilize and a tool to do so, and that remains.

These are substantial and durable gains, though difficult to quantify. They make it difficult for future and aspiring governments to dispense with popular-sector concerns out of hand. The specter of popular mobilization remains. Of course, it also makes the current crisis all the more disillusioning and tragic, and in large measure explains popular disdain for Maduro, especially among entrenched left sectors like those in El 23. It’s in those spaces where what’s most salvageable about the Chávez era emerges: in the lessons it has left behind, especially, about what not to do as a left in power. Those lessons are being fiercely debated, even as they contend with the realities of what the Maduro government has devolved into.

Were you there for the US election?

Yes, I was there. Everyone was gearing up for a Clinton presidency, and positioning themselves accordingly. The government felt a Clinton administration would prove more hawkish and confrontational than Obama. Much as everywhere else, I suspect, Trump’s victory caught Venezuelans by surprise. For many in the opposition, the idea that US voters would support a candidate that they had so strongly and hyperbolically equated with Chávez seemed inconceivable, especially against a model of neoliberal technocratic enlightenment as Hillary Clinton. So their reaction was particularly morose and shell-shocked. Government responses seemed far more subdued and predictable, limited mainly to highlighting Trump’s anti-Latino/a statements as a way, I believe, to stand in common cause with the rest of the region at a time when Venezuela is more and more isolated. Of course, much will depend on who Trump appoints to run the Latin America desk at State. Already, his nomination of John Kelly for Homeland Security secretary brings a hard-line voice on Latin America into his cabinet. As head of Southern Command, responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean, Kelly engaged in some heated exchanges with Maduro and Venezuelan government officials, directing resources to drug interdiction and to war games simulating intervention, as well as making broader statements on the political and economic situation. As head of DHS, with more resources at his disposal and with a greater mandate based on Trump’s campaign rhetoric to focus on affairs south of the border, it’s likely we’ll see greater attention and confrontation with Venezuela.

OK, here’s the big question: What moral lesson does Venezuela provide? Gabe Hetland, in The Nation, has done excellent on-the-ground reporting pushing back on the dominant narrative that the current crisis is the inevitable result of socialism, looking at issues of sabotage, corruption, political missteps, and bad economic policy. But what’s your opinion?

 Some lessons are fairly clear: Attempting to build a socialist revolution on the basis of a commodity boom is bound to generate problems, not so much because booms turn to bust, but because booms mask how difficult it is to bring fundamental changes in social relations. Venezuela is a consumer society. To the extent that the oil boom fed consumerism, by way of massive direct and indirect spending, it undercut the Bolivarian Revolution’s earlier efforts to spur independent grassroots activism. Income, caloric intake, medical care, basic quality of life, especially for the poor, all increased. That’s undeniable.

It’s also true that as quality of life rose, so did spending, but not apace with either domestic production—which resulted in greater dependency on imports—or with efforts to promote grassroots democracy, which suffered as dependency on state resources increased. It’s a lesson in how to balance resource distribution in order to generate immediate relief, and laying the foundations for durable social change.

None of this happened in a vacuum, of course. Long before the oil boom, before social programs, before expropriations, before Chávez even talked about socialism, what the Bolivarian Revolution promised was to roll back neoliberal policies that had severely harmed the poor over the previous decade and more. That was deeply threatening to entrenched elite sectors with much to lose, resulting in antidemocratic moves to oust Chávez and Chavismo between 2002 and 2005. Today, especially among the opposition, those years are either dismissed altogether, or justified through a kind of retroactive clairvoyance. But what they point to is a deeper lesson of political praxis: Is revolutionary change, insofar as it directly challenges the interests of entrenched elites, compatible with liberal democracy? And what is the balance between social and economic rights, and civil and political rights? To the extent that Chávez both embraced and undermined liberal democracy, especially in those early years, he sent mixed signals to his supporters and to his opponents, domestically and abroad, about what “revolution” meant. That allowed people to project hopes and fears that often bore little relation to actual policies on the ground, further and further pushing a zero-sum political dynamic; when the oil boom hit, Chávez papered over by creating parallel institutions rather than replacing old ones, in the process further stoking polarization and leading to more, not less, concentration of power at the expense of organized popular sectors.

The tension around liberal, social democratic, or revolutionary paths to change also leads to contradictory and counterproductive confusion about the causes of the crisis. Gabe Hetland is right: It’s difficult to separate bad economic policy—like regressive subsidies and exchange controls—from examples of malicious sabotage, destabilization campaigns, and widespread corruption. The former exacerbate the latter, and the two become blurred. And yet, as I wrote about this in a recent column, seeking fuller explanations is difficult. There’s a tendency to reduce the crisis to a simple narrative of oil dependency or socialism, but that’s fundamentally dishonest. The fact is that neither was Venezuela under Chávez as “socialist,” as critics insist, nor can oil dependency alone account for the severity of the current crisis. It’s the combination of a haphazard socialist program built atop a foundation of increased oil dependency against the virulent opposition of entrenched elites that most accounts for Venezuela’s mess.

The crisis then seems sui generis, since most socialist movements can’t expect, if they achieve power, to be awash in petrodollars. I guess the question is, why couldn’t Chávez, in the short space of a decade, turn Venezuela into Norway?! But you’ve answered that in a way, by pointing out that he didn’t take power in a vacuum; rather, the possibilities of what he could achieve were determined by a sort of path dependency nearly a century in the making.

But what is the opinion of left social movements? Has the current situation led to a reassessment of first principles regarding the relationship of the state to social movements? Or of tactics? I’m thinking of the way the overthrow of Allende in Chile led to a broad critique among leftists of the Popular Unity electoral strategy? Venezuela is, obviously, a different situation, but what theoretical and tactical insights might we learn from the crisis?

Opinions vary. Which makes sense, because left social movements were and are wide-ranging, precisely due to their different approaches to the state. These differences and their origins shape their views of the crisis, and of the lessons learned and to be learned. I’ll give you two examples. In the neighborhood of El 23, where leftist movements have long histories of organizing and mobilizing vis-à-vis the state—including the Chavista state—ranging from armed opposition to uneasy incorporation, what I heard from various longtime activists was variations of: “you can’t give power to the people all at once; you need institutions.” This may be surprising, coming from sectors that have long fought to bring about poder popular, or “popular power.” But what they have realized is that popular power, especially when it is tied to state resources, can fall prey to corruption or, worse, falta de compromise—a lack of commitment, if there aren’t prior experiences of organizing outside the state underpinning them. So their critique, which they assume as self-critique as much as anything, is that the Bolivarian Revolution moved too quickly to distribute resources massively without first generating opportunities for local-level organizations to surface independently—which is what they mean by institutions. By the time communal councils came around, those that emerged in areas with long traditions of organizing were, unsurprisingly, poised to be most active and successful, and to be best positioned to confront the current crisis.

Then there are groups like the Red de Comunas, which is an umbrella organization of mainly rural communes that are registered with the government but subsist, network, and organize independently (on these, see George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela). What you hear from them is not that Chávez and his government moved too quickly but too slowly to cede power to organized popular sectors. Their response to the crisis, especially to shortages of food, is that they had long advocated for a model of food sovereignty rooted in domestic production around rural communes, which would then link with worker-owned factories, and with urban communal councils, for processing and distribution.

So these are the potential seeds of a truly new form of social organization, something that might be defined not just in negative terms, in opposition to neoliberalism, but by what it is, a different way of organizing production and trade. 

 Yes, but: As currency-exchange controls created more and more opportunities for graft and corruption through phony import schemes and large-scale arbitrage, comuneros encountered bureaucratic barriers that chafed against Chávez’s rhetoric in support of their efforts. By the time, in 2010, when Chávez pushed through a communes law to formalize their standing in his program, the commune project was a threat not just to the Chavista bureaucracy, which saw them as encroaching on their power, but especially to a new elite with deep interests in maintaining import schemes. Those have only gained in prominence as the crisis has deepened and as Maduro seeks powerful allies.

Then there’s a difference of opinion here in terms of pace. There’s also an important common thread that goes beyond questions particular to Venezuela and its historic dependence on oil. Where the two meet is in their shared sense that popular power is central to revolutionary change, but if it is to be successful, if it is to fundamentally transform society in the interest of long-disenfranchised sectors, especially in the face of an organized opposition, it must begin from below, and it must be as comfortable outside as within the state.

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