For quite some time now I ask myself why the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez was, and still is, so much admired, not only by idealistic youngsters, but also by figures such as director Oliver Stone. Stone, in particular, keeps his Facebook followers updated about his engagements in Venezuala and elsewhere. Stone and the Chavistas find lots of praise for Chávez’s so-called ‘socialism of the 21st century’, or ‘Chavismo’. Chavez’s passion to push the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ and implement his type of socialism is certainly admirable. His vision and stamina gained him even the respect of ideological foes such as Chile’s right-wing President Sebastián Piñera, who paid his respects at Chavez’s funeral.
Undoubtedly, Chavez understood the grievances of his constituencies far better than the so-called democrats in e.g. Germany or the US. His socialism lifted millions out of poverty, a fact that is rarely mentioned in the mainstream press, but brought him the rather negative label of being ‘populist’ – if something is done for the masses it’s populism, or – Help us God! – even communism; if measures support a rather tiny ‘business community’, however, it’s ‘reasonable economics’. This is why the openly capitalist world finds it hard to understand how Chávez could reach such popularity.
Yet, Venezuela’s last elections made some cracks visible and showed that ‘Chavismo’ is actually closer to the rough authoritarian form of capitalism (anti-terrorism measures) that’s creeping into our lives for quite some time now. Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro campaigned explicitly on a Chávez platform that permeated even into Chile.
Maduro campaign poster seen in Downtown Santiago. It reads ‘Chávez lives, Maduro follows’.
In the end, however, he gained barely 50% of the vote. Maduro’s handling of the ensuing riots showed not only his inability to deal with crisis but also resembled post-democratic capitalism. It helps to juxtapose Chile and Venezuela to clarify that point.
During that same period in which the Venezuelan elections went ahead, the Chilean people protested their country’s perverse business of education and health and voiced anger against the socio-economic order in general. The protests were so large and threatening to Chile’s quasi-feudal order that the government reacted with drafting the so-called ‘Hinzpeter Law’, named after then-Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter. Personally, I witnessed how police forces tear-gassed and apprehended even 12-year old boys. The ruling elites showed nothing else than contempt for the popular demands. Something similar went on in Maduro’s ‘socialist’ Venezuela. Post-election protests led to at least nine deaths as well as arbitrary detention according to Human Rights Watch. It was interesting how the supposedly ideologically opposed ruling classes in both countries justified the excessive use of force.
Yet, the global Left has been remarkably silent about the violence of the Maduro administration. There was no Oliver Stone or left-wing publication raising criticism. The mainstream Left, it seems, is happy to support oppression, if it is done in the name of socialist ideology. This, in effect, leaves actually no distinction between so-called right- and left-wing regimes. A thorough Marxist analysis would show that Venezuela, but also Cuba, are governed under the very same laws as any other capitalist country.
The Left’s admiration of Chavismo is further ridiculed when it comes to Venezuela’s position in the global capitalist economy. It is not only a cog in the machine but an indispensable pillar to uphold and reproduce that system. Venezuela’s trade with the ‘evil’ USA is intense. Exports amount to roughly 40% and imports to 31%. China, as second most important trading partner, tallies only ca. 14% exports and 16% imports. It’s safe to say that capitalist dollars are not only welcome but are essential to the economy. Modernity’s most admired socialist leader not only built a society on capitalist dollars, he even made it addicted to them. So far there are no signs to alter that status quo.
Even more intriguing is that Venezuela does not engage in ordinary trade but provides the world’s leading capitalist power with oil, which is the very grease that keeps the capitalist machine running. The claim to anti-capitalism makes sense only in a simpleton’s mind. How can anyone think that when the diplomats of the Venezuelan and US governments meet to negotiate oil deals that Venezuela does not aim to go for the highest price possible? This means effectively it aims to accumulate capital to invest in further production (education, health, technology). Negotiations with Russia or Iran could never work out to the amount of trade the US has on offer, those side-negotiations are rather to be seen as measures to increase Venezuela’s return on investment.
A further dimension of hypocrisy is revealed on the side of the United States too. As much as socialist Venezuela likes capitalist dollars, Washington longs for socialist oil. So while the people engage in fierce debate about Chavismo vs. capitalismo, the ruling classes of both countries must be laughing their asses off. Divide et impera is still the ruling principle of capitalist modernity.
The sad thing is that the left is not able to emancipate itself from ideology. This is why there can be no change. This is why capitalism prevails – it is as comfortable in Washington as it is in Caracas. The Left must learn to think outside the current social system, beyond slogans, beyond induced perceptions of the world; it must develop social concepts beyond orthodox social relations. More important still: The Left must emancipate itself from its idols!