At the end of the twentieth century, Hugo Chávez took Latin American politics by storm. After winning the presidential elections of Venezuela in 1998, he would inspire people around the world with his daring opposition to US political and economic dominance. Almost two decades on from this victory, his movement has recently suffered its first significant electoral defeat. Is this a good thing, as many news sources believe it to be? Or is it a loss in the fight for justice and equality that we can learn from back in Britain?
Venezuela under Chávez
Between 1958 and 1993, the oil-rich Latin American nation of Venezuela was ruled over by an elite group of politicians who had agreed to differ very little in the policies they offered. Things began to change in 1989, however, when a popular rebellion broke out in response to an economic plan of privatisation and deregulation which had been proposed by the International Monetary Fund and was imposed by the country’s president. The poor and excluded people who took to the streets to protest these measures suffered what Venezuela Analysis (VA) calls “one of the most brutal instances of state repression in contemporary Venezuelan history”. Within three days, the state killed or disappeared up to 3,000 people.
After this event, hunger for change in the country grew, and the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 was in many aspects the culmination of this process. According to The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, the new president immediately set about using oil revenues to “alleviate poverty and build a supportive social welfare system” in an attempt to create greater societal equality. Other countries in the continent soon followed Venezuela’s example, and the increasing prominence of moderate left-wing governments was soon dubbed the Pink Tide. The aim of these movements, says La Jornada’s was to “make deep changes in the economic model they inherited”. However, he insists
It was like trying to change the motor of a car while it was moving.
Initially, they sought to redistribute public wealth among the poorest parts of society and push the idea of a regional economic integration independent from US influence. But in recent years they have generally failed to deal with the global fall in the price of commodities, says Navarro, and a resurgent right wing – which “doesn’t dare to tell its name nor show its real face” – promised to come in and fight against corruption and inefficiency whilst failing to clarify what changes it would make. At the same time, it has avoided criticising the progressive policies implemented by their opponents openly, mainly because they accept their popularity.
The 2015 elections and the mainstream media
There has been a barrage of woeful media coverage regarding Venezuela ever since Chávez took power, and the recent parliamentary elections were no different. A significant focus lay with the democratic characteristics of the country, which were often called into question. Professor Lauren Carasik of the Western New England University School of Law, however, insisted before the elections that much of the “international scrutiny over the integrity of the country’s electoral process” sought primarily to “delegitimize the government of President Nicolás Maduro” – Chávez’s colleague and successor. The reality, she stressed, was that Venezuela had
one of the most efficient, secure and transparent electoral systems
But in the run-up to the elections, the mainstream media did its best to bring the Venezuelan system into disrepute. The Guardian, for example, wrote about:
- The murder of an opposition politician late November, while TeleSur insisted that the man in question had been “under investigation for homicide since 2010” and was, apparently, “well known as a criminal in the region”.
- Allegations from followers of ultra-right politician Leopoldo López about supposed crimes against humanity – for which no evidence was provided.
- The arrest in Haiti of two nephews of the first lady Cilia Flores, who had no role in the Venezuelan government.
In other words, it seemed like the paper was the mouthpiece of the Venezuelan opposition rather than an independent and objective news source.
When it turned out that the opposition coalition had gained a majority of 112 out of 167 seats (compared to the governing PSUV’s 55), Z.C. Dutka at VA says, “all talk of electoral fraud was pointedly discarded”, and the country was “relabeled a democracy”. According to Miguel Tinker Salas and Victor Silverman at The Nation, the democratic process had simply “proceeded as usual“, and the peaceful unfolding of the elections “should not be a surprise, given Venezuela’s solid democratic institutions”.
Now, other media sources began to show their excitement:
- The Economist wrote about “reasons to celebrate”, claiming the opposition victory “brings a solution closer” for the problems of Venezuela.
- The Independent suggested there would be “turmoil” because President Maduro had promised to do his best to stop the achievements made since 1999 being destroyed. It also spoke about “winds of change” blowing through the continent – implicitly suggesting the right-wing victories in Venezuela and elsewhere were positive developments. In fact, it claimed Maduro had “fumbled” economic issues, creating a “death spiral”, and that his right-wing opponents were from the “centre-ground”. It later said, “reining in Maduro… will be tough”, as if he were some sort of irrational animal and in spite of the fact that Maduro soon called “on all of our people to recognise in peace these results”. Finally, it published an article by fashion writer, Linda Sharkey, saying the opposition victory was “a moment of change and a better future”. No bias there, then.
At the same time, Caleb Maupin wrote for RT about how Western media reports had “focused on an alleged decrease in enthusiasm for the project of 21st Century Socialism” spearheaded by Chávez and his colleagues – which he claimed was not a justified assertion. US media in particular, he said, “often highlights the complaints of wealthy young Venezuelans”, skewing public opinion in favour of the country’s elites without sharing the views of ordinary citizens.
A context of US hostility
The opposition’s victory did not come from nowhere. Before considering economic and bureaucratic factors, it is essential to look at the context within which Chávez’s movement sought to reform Venezuelan society after 1999.
In 2002, there was a US-backed coup that temporarily saw Chávez overthrown, and other coup attempts were foiled in following years. In 2006, WikiLeaks revealed that American organisations like USAID and OTI were “playing central roles in a strategy to oust Chavez”. Investigations undertaken by US-Venezuelan lawyer Eva Golinger, meanwhile, showed that between 2004 and 2006, USAID had spent around $15m on funding right-wing anti-government groups in Venezuela. Later, in 2011, the state oil company in Venezuela was sanctioned by the USA, and President Obama imposed more sanctions in 2015 after calling the country an “extraordinary threat” to the United States.
In the 1998 elections, stresses TeleSur, the US ambassador in Venezuela “openly supported Chavez’s rival“. The next ambassador, meanwhile, had been a military attaché in Chile during the US-backed coup of 1973 and arrived just one month before the anti-Chávez coup of 2002. No wonder the Venezuelan government claims he was involved (the arrival of US military helicopters in Caracas during the event did little to hide their complicity either).
Before the 2015 elections, Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Mark Weisbrot spoke about how Washington saw the world:
Just as big fish eat little fish and lions prey on antelope, so there is no moral shame in the U.S. government trying to undermine, destabilize or get rid of democratically elected governments that it doesn’t like.
Although there had “not been a shred of credible evidence of electoral fraud” during the PSUV’s time in power, therefore, a “pre-emptive strike to discredit the elections” was already being put into action.
Other reasons for the opposition victory
Without a doubt, there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the economic situation in Venezuela before the elections. But according to Pew Research Center, voters were “not fond of the opposition leaders“. They had simply been convinced that any change would be a good change. And that was the PSUV’s big disadvantage, having governed the country since 1999.
There have long been suspicions, however, that corporate elites both in Venezuela and abroad had been waging economic war on the country to weaken the ruling socialist government. The newly-elected right-wing president of Argentina, for example, called before the elections for Venezuela to be ousted from the Mercosur trade bloc. He backtracked after the results came in, of course.
Meanwhile, social media users soon spoke of “the suspicious reappearance of some staple goods in some markets” following the elections, suggesting that there had been a conscious effort of economic elites to squeeze the Venezuelan population into voting the opposition into power.
Nonetheless, even Maduro’s sympathisers claimed that one big error of the government had been “not confronting economic malaise in a statesmanlike way”. According to VA’s Ociel Alí Lopez-Kalé, citizens wanted action rather than politicians “making bad jokes” or “repeating empty speeches”. For him, there had not been a single piece of legislation in recent years to make voters stick with the government as not to lose out. In other words, the opposition had won not because it had proposed a better alternative, but because the ruling party had not done enough to maintain the loyalty and trust of enough voters.
According to Simon Tisdall, the government was “not rejected on ideological grounds, but on grounds of economic incompetence” – or the perception of it. Keeping too much power in the hands of the political elite rather than transferring it to the population was always going to leave Maduro and co-exposed to such criticism.
What does the future hold?
The new opposition legislators will no doubt try to get Maduro to “roll back policies” made in previous years, says the Guardian, while Hannah Dreier at AP stresses that the “sleepy days” in congress will now be a thing of the past. The Washington post, however, insists that the PSUV still has a “formidable… capacity for obstruction” of the opposition agenda. And this is made even more relevant by the fact that the winning alliance is “delicate“, according to the New York Times.
According to Luis Hernández Navarro, the right-wing’s momentum has now “created alarm in social movements throughout the region”, which will not give up their achievements without a fight. As a result, he says, “they have begun to reactivate and regroup to confront the spectre of a conservative resurgence”. In other words, the right may have won the most recent battle, but it hasn’t won the war.
Grassroots leaders, says The Nation’s Gabriel Hetland, “stress the need for more participation and genuine popular control over decision-making as a way to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles” that have been the downfall of the PSUV in Venezuela. According to VA’s Lucas Koerner, community activists know very well that the gains made will be defended in the streets and the communal councils. Rachael Boothroyd Rojas, meanwhile, asserts at VA that “street mobilisations against the potential rollback of current legislation” have already begun.
But those seeking power in the halls of parliament will also play a role, and will need to reflect critically on their mistakes in order to stop the Venezuelan right from undoing the good work done by the PSUV. And the importance of both these realms is no doubt why Maduro has recently met thousands of people in a “street parliament” to call for self-critical debate.
all is not lost provided that the vital work of reconnecting with the Venezuelan masses begins immediately.
Lessons for the UK?
A possible left-wing alliance led by Jeremy Corbyn in the 2020 UK elections would do well to learn from the mistakes of the PSUV in Venezuela. For example, however well-intentioned the actions of politicians may be, they mean very little without popular engagement in the political process. Citizens need to participate in the process of change themselves, and we need to see it with our own eyes. While working through the established policial system is arguably the most peaceful way to ensure reform, this should never lead us to neglect the essential role that all of us can and must play.
Venezuela has shown that a certain amount of change is possible through participation in a representative democracy. But it has also shown that, without the majority of power being transferred to ordinary citizens, it is easy for the most powerful in society to retain their political influence. In other words, for profound transformation to take place, we must not rely on representatives to do the work for us. We must become actively involved in the process ourselves.
Featured images via Ricardo Patiño