by Chris Jarvis
CW: torture, rape, political violence
Less than a decade ago, left-wingers across the globe turned towards Latin America as something of a road map towards a more progressive and socialist politics. Many a left tradition could be identified in the range of regimes, leaders and parties that had come to power throughout the region. Evo Morales in Bolivia, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva in Brazil, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Ollanta Humala in Perù, Jose Mujica in Uruguay, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, the ever present Castros in Cuba, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The “Pink Tide”, as this phenomena became loosely known, was high, and international awe developed among the left.
Breaking out of the 1990s, in which the global institutions of neoliberalism, from the IMF and the World Bank to the US state and multinational corporations drove an agenda of austerity, privatisation of services and market liberalisation, Governments of the “Pink Tide” brought promise of a better deal for the various Latin American nations which elected them. To greater or lesser degrees, these Governments sought to recentre economies away from international capital and towards the needs of people, increase spending on and provision of welfare and public services – whether through anti-hunger initiatives, healthcare programmes or education projects, and deepen democracy. Across the region, the Pink Tide brought with it decreasing levels of economic inequality, higher literacy rates, reduced poverty and greater levels of health.
In 2017, the legacy of these leftist Governments lies tarnished – and perhaps the most emblematic of this turn is Venezuela. In 1999, upon Hugo Chávez’ assumption of the Presidency, Venezuela became the poster-child of a modern, democratic socialist project. Initiating what he referred to as the “Bolivarian Revolution” – a nod to 19th century liberator of parts of Latin America from Spanish colonialism, Simon Bolivar – as per his Pink Tide peers, Chávez instigated processes of democratisation, wealth redistribution and mass public service provision. Within a year of office, a new constitution had been approved, which contained a Presidential right of recall, a radical human rights agenda, including rights to health care, freedom of association, employment, housing and political participation, and strengthened the rights of indigenous peoples. Between 2004 and 2011, the Venezuelan economy grew each year by between 5% and 20% in all but one year, and that growth powered the increase in the percentage of households living above the poverty line from 52% to 72% in just six years, with extreme poverty falling every year from 2003 through to 2012. Throughout the Chávez Presidency, illiteracy was all but eradicated.
The international image of Chávez and Venezuela was established around these achievements, the progressive policies that they were built upon and from the public profile adopted by Chavez himself. A talented political operator, at ease on the world stage, Hugo Chávez became one of the most prominent, provocative and outspoken world leaders critiquing US foreign policy, western imperialism and military occupation. This took place at a time when the illegal, regime changing war in Iraq raged on, alongside the continuing war of attrition in Afghanistan as well as the Second Intifada and the 2006 Lebanon War. In 2006, Chávez spoke on the floor of the United Nations and called George Bush “El Diablo”. Earlier that year, he described Tony Blair as a “pawn of imperialism”, and throughout his Presidency cut off diplomatic relations with both the USA and Israel over actions in the Middle east.
After courting and developing such a strong reputation as a nation that is outspoken in its criticisms of the dominant global order, and simultaneously building a radical alternative within its own borders, perhaps Venezuela was always doomed to fail against the metrics it had built itself, and also against those unwisely placed on it by the left internationally. Whatever the case may be, it is time for all of us to be frank.
By the end of Chávez’ time in office, shortly prior to his untimely death in 2013, the cracks had begun to show on the Bolivarian Revolution. An economy over-dependent on oil – which comprises around three quarters of Venezuelan exports – heavily susceptible to fluctuations, began to falter, as food scarcity increased and the seeds of an inflation crisis were sewn. Concurrently, accusations of human rights violations grew more prominent as domestic and international NGOs, civil society organisations and human rights activists drew attention to political violence and intimidation, reprisals on members of the judiciary and a crackdown on human rights campaigners.
By the end of Chavez’ time in office, shortly prior to his untimely death in 2013, the cracks had begun to show on the Bolivarian Revolution.
All of this has intensified since Chávez’ successor Nicolas Maduro assumed office in 2013. In 2014, the first mass anti-Government protests began, triggered by a complex web of issues – the murder of actress Monica Spear, public allegations of corruption, the attempted rape of a student on a San Cristobal university campus, the failure to tackle increasing rates of violent crime, and the deteriorating economy. Since then, protests have continued each year. In 2015, a second major wave of protests struck the country as allegations that the ruling party, PSUV, had a substantial advantage over opposition parties through use of public assets, unequal media access and control over the voting system caused mass unrest.
Following the cancellation of the 2016 Presidential recall referendum instigated against Nicolas Maduro, rife with accusations of corruption and electoral fraud, as many as 1 million people took to the streets demanding Maduro be recalled, in, at the time, the largest protest in the nation’s history. This was eclipsed by a yet larger protest in October 2016. In March of 2017, the Venezuelan Constitutional Crisis, sparked by an attempted dissolution of the powers of the National Assembly, the legislative body within Venezuela, primarily made up of Deputies of Opposition Parties saw a renewal of mass unrest throughout the country. “The Mother of All Protests” is estimated to be the larger than the 2016 demonstrations with as many as 2.5 million people participating in the capital, Caracas. All of this has taken place at a time when inflation has been running as high as 800%, up to 90% of Venezuelans stating that they cannot afford food, and unemployment rising to as high as 17%. Nicolas Maduro now has approval ratings of just 24%.
Alone, this would be a fairly strong indictment on the Government of the day. The response of the Maduro regime only exacerbates it. In 2015, in violation of the Venezuelan constitution, Minister of Defence Vladimir Padrino Lopez signed Resolution 8610, authorising the use of lethal force, including through firearms in pursuit of the loosely defined prevention of disorders. Between 2014 and 2017, over 100 deaths have been attributed to the protests, including more than 50 in 2017 alone. While these include the deaths of police and armed forces, as well as Government supporters, the vast majority of fatalities have been protesters.
Maduro’s Government has complemented this direct violence with a flurry of mass arrests, including of opposition leaders. Human Rights Watch has alleged that vast numbers of those arrested had not participated in protest violence, or even been involved in protests at all. Of those arrested, dozens have alleged they have experienced torture during their time in police custody or imprisonment, a process of which Amnesty International has claimed to have documented “scores of cases”, despite the prohibition of torture in the Venezuelan constitution.
Between 2014 and 2017, over 100 deaths have been attributed to the protests, including more than 50 in 2017 alone.
This clampdown on opposition has taken place on the streets and jail cells of Venezuela, and also inside the political institutions which the Bolivarian Revolution built. On the 5 July 2017, Vice President of Venezuela Tarek El Aissami, along with members of the Venezuelan National Guard enabled Government supporters to enter the National Assembly, upon which 12 opposition lawmakers and their staff were injured after violent attacks from the supporters. But the latest in a long list of attempts by the Maduro Government to repress challenges to the regime.
The future of Maduro’s Government, the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela and the Pink Tide is still being written. As that takes place, marrying the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela and the actions of its Government with the ambitions of its origins is all but impossible. Eighteen years after Hugo Chávez swept to power carrying the hope of the country and inspiring the world, Venezuela stands not as an example of how deep, participatory democracy can be entwined with radical, progressive and socialist politics, but instead as a reminder of the dangers of state power, the tyranny of corruption, and the horrors of authoritarianism.
Featured image via Voice of America
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