Will Venezuela go the way of the popular progressive regimes across Latin America –excepting Cuba? Over the last century progressive populist regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia saw their more enlightened political fortunes dramatically reversed after endless political and economic interference from outside forces, relentless internal deception from duplicitous right-wing quarters, chronic media deception, and elevated hostility from many segments of the professional middle classes. The recent election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, a right-wing ideologue who makes Donald Trump look wistful and compromising, provides further evidence of the unmistakable restoration of Western capitalist hegemony across the region.
For most of the post-WWII era, Venezuela was governed by a coalition of business and military elites that kowtowed to the regional agenda set by Washington. The privileged elite and an expanding middle class prospered through this clientalist arrangement while most Venezuelans continued to suffer through the burdens of privation and poverty. Challenges to this dismal situation sometimes emerged from below, and in 1989 a significant popular push led to the massacre of more than 2,000 people by the reactionary vassal state.
In 1998, the people of Venezuela elected a progressive populist government with Hugo Chavez at the helm. Chavez immediately implemented a social agenda aimed at alleviating the perennial hardship of the country’s peasants, workers and forgotten poor. He also moved to establish greater regional autonomy for Venezuela vis à vis the US. To secure the Bolivarian revolution, an eponym stressing the creation of a free and independent Venezuela for the 21st century, Chavez shrewdly cultivated support from the Venezuelan military.
The Bolivarian revolution is now in its third decade, and its two-pronged stress on regional independence and state support for Venezuela’s impoverished masses has triggered fierce opposition both inside and outside the country, especially in Washington. The United States has employed its predictable repertoire of imperialist strategies to roll back the Bolivarian revolution including orchestrated coup attempts, aggressive economic sabotage and the exploitation of internal political dissent. Other imperialist countries including France, Germany and Canada have dutifully fallen into line with the basic thrust of the US policy.
There are two related reasons why the Bolivarian revolution has aroused opposition both inside the country and internationally among the leading imperialist states. First, to the extent that the Chavez agenda stressed greater regional autonomy, especially through the provision of direct aid to other Latin American countries along with an emphasis on control over its natural resources, especially its formidable oil deposits, it ran headlong into the unilateralist neoliberal agenda set by Washington. The US has recently reiterated its faith in the almost two-century old Monroe doctrine which advises the rest of the world to stay out of US-Latin American affairs. Successive American administrations have worked with traditional elites, business moguls and landowners across the region to secure optimal investment climates for both US corporations and international capital more generally. This emphasis should be seen as a response to the often sluggish tendencies of corporate profitability and the constant concern that global capitalism might slip into a crisis at any point. Latin American imperialism, from the standpoint of the Monroe doctrine, means little more than making the region safe for profitable corporate investment. The bevy of northern imperialist nations, always led by the US, accordingly parry and resist any populist or nationalist agendas – like the Bolivarian one – that might interfere with these profit-maximizing ambitions, while simultaneously giving preferential promotion to their respective nationally-based corporations.
Chavez had become a blip on imperialism’s radar screen – NEVER a good thing!
At the same time, Venezuela posed a second threat to the US and its imperialist troupe of first fiddlers. The progressive Bolivarian policies aimed at alleviating the dreadful conditions facing the country’s poor have included the creation of food distribution networks in impoverished areas to guarantee access to basic necessities, the establishment of well-staffed medical facilities for the poor, the formation of state-led administrative councils in poorer regions to help insure the proper delivery of goods and services, the provision of adequate housing that was affordable and even sometimes free, the rapid expansion of accessible education, and state subsidies for critical items such as gasoline.
But Venezuela’s progressive policies, widely supported by the country’s poor, threatened to relax the severely coercive character of world capitalism. Latin American imperialism, from this perspective, has meant little more than the deliberate creation and perpetuation of an impoverished mass of desperate souls who feel compelled to work for starvation wages. Capitalist imperialism is premised on the conviction that wretched poverty, lack of access to arable land, and weak social programs create the lash that drives reluctant workers into the awaiting arms of businesses. National and international corporations gleefully exploit these politically fabricated circumstances to pay workers below-subsistence wages that perpetuate the desperation of working people.
In the north, neoliberalism has been increasing the precariousness of working people; its counterpart in Latin America, shorthanded as Washington Consensus for decades, has helped to perpetuate mass poverty with even greater harshness and misery. Chavez confronted these oppressive policies directly, and his progressive program predictably aroused fierce opposition both inside the country. The Venezuelan business community and the country’s privileged elite recoiled in horror, and the northern capitalist states rebuked the Bolivarian revolution at every turn. Social policies that truly help the poor are taboo and the imperialist push-back has been ferocious. Caracas was messing around with a key repressive pillar of global capitalism, and its example has been as odious to imperialism’s executive nations as it was inspiring to those struggling for a better world.
Where does Canada fit in all of this? Next to the US, Canada is dutifully fulfilling its obligations as a core imperialist nation oriented towards the overriding promotion of ideal investment climates around the globe, especially for the benefit of Canadian-based corporations. Enlightened sentiments emanating from Ottawa on critical matters such as systemic racism, Indigenous genocide, patriarchal oppression, global structural climate change and the wretched condition of working people the world over will always be subordinated to Canada’s driving imperialist agenda.
What is good for imperialism, however, is generally bad for people at home and abroad –and folks in Canada and around the world unfailingly tend to twig to this fact at some level. Consequently, the greater challenge for Canadian governments burdened with the task of maintaining capitalist imperialism is spinning their venal policies as a force for good in the world. To this end Canada has presented the Venezuelan crisis as a struggle between the forces of ‘crass authoritarian rule’ on the Bolivarian side and ‘enlightened democracy’ centered around Juan Guaidó on the other. In the words of the Lima group, an organization spearheaded by Canada for the express purpose of undermining the Bolivarian revolution, Venezuela is “experiencing a humanitarian, political, economic and moral crisis generated by the illegitimate and dictatorial regime of Nicolás Maduro …”
It seems that Canada has come to the rescue! The Trudeau government has worked the mythology of Canada as the world’s ‘sweet friend’ without compunction. What is perhaps most remarkable is the fact that the mainstream media continues to tout this official imperialist mythology on Venezuela despite considerable criticism and opposition within Canada. Oblivious to history, the corporate media conveniently ignores the fact that the coterie of imperialist powers, always with America in the lead, has resorted to coups, invasions, the exploitation of internal dissent, economic sabotage, electoral disruption, embargoes and the seizure of assets to undercut progressive regimes across Latin America for decades. And the propagandistic media effortlessly buys into the official imperialist line on Venezuela irrespective of the fact that most of these undemocratic strategies have been deployed against the Bolivarian revolution in recent years. It always seems to forget that Chavez and Maduro have won six straight elections. It ignores the fact that after the attempted coup of 2002 was thwarted by the country’s poor and a military that remained loyal to the Chavez agenda, the US and other core imperialist nations ramped up their support for internal opposition through such groups as the National Endowment for Democracy. The media doesn’t bother with troublesome details like the escalation of crushing sanctions after the death of Chavez in 2013, just as it is willfully blind to the fact that Western powers have done everything in their power to discredit Venezuela’s electoral process.
Like Cuba, the Bolivarian revolution may very well resist the US-led onslaught. Although the regime has struggled in the face of low oil prices and the American-led attacks on the Venezuelan economy, the US has lost much internal credibility in Venezuela. Support for a military invasion, a threat routinely voiced in the highest echelons of the Trump administration, is viewed askance by a vast majority of Venezuelans. The country’s military continues to stand by the Maduro regime. Venezuela’s poor, moreover, continue to support the revolution despite hyperinflation, the hoarding of goods by the country’s privileged class, the coordinated sabotage of the nation’s electrical grid and shortages of several critical items. The situation on the ground has been worsening in recent months, although strengthened ties with Russia and China are helping to counteract the severe economic disruption engineered by Washington.
Global capitalism has always been violent and anti-democratic, but it is not omnipotent. There is hope that the progressive experiment in Venezuela may survive this latest barrage by the northern capitalist states.
Thom Workman is the co-author (with Geoff McCormack) of The Servant State: Overseeing Capital Accumulation in Canada.